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Cosby’s “Conversations”: How Should Museums Decide What is in the Public’s Best Interest?

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By Debra S. Friedmann

Part of the core mission of the majority of museums is to educate the public. One way they achieve this is by using a range of informative literature: signs and labels to accompany a painting, an exhibition or a show. Some museums default to what has been coined the “tombstone label,” which includes minimal and basic identifying information such as the name of the painting, dimensions, materials, the artist, and an approximate date for when the work for art was made. Others have attempted to introduce technological innovation, a fundraising method, to the museum experience by providing limited information near a piece on a sign or label, and then using iPads and iPhones to offer an extended explanation on the piece. These decisions are deliberate choices made by museum curator for the purpose of educating the visitors. At times however, museum goers disagreed with the extent of the story the curators chose to tell.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) Study of an Arab (1897) Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Photograph by Frank Stewart “Conversations Considered”

In a recent incident, on November 9, 2014, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, opened an exhibit entitled “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,”on view through January 24, 2016. According to the Museum, the majority of the works on display are a part of its permanent collection; however, a third of the exhibit is on loan from Camille and Bill Cosby. In light of the controversy surrounding Bill Cosby, many museum goers have raised objections to the loan from the (in)famous actor due to the surge of dozens of rape allegations against him.

In order to keep the exhibit on display while simultaneously addressing the public outcry, the Museum posted an explanatory notice, both next to the exhibition and on their website. The notice explains that while the National Museum of African Art “in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior,” the pieces from his personal collections are displayed because of their artistic value and because of the importance of the artists who made them, including Joshua Johnston, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Ousmane Sow, Eldzier Cortor, and Gerard Sekoto. The artwork featured in the exhibit, the museum claims, is meant to engage in the powerful stories and experiences of African and African American people, and should therefore be available to the public for educational purposes. To address the public concern and foster the Museum-visitor  dialogue, the Museum also invited people to express their thoughts and comments in a visitor’s book or by e-mail.

Would the museum have acknowledged allegations of illegal activity by the donor next to the exhibit had there not been a public outcry on the matter? In this instance, articles about the owner’s transgressions have splashed across pages in newspapers, magazines, tabloids, and internet sources, making it common knowledge. Recently, thirty-five of Cosby’s alleged victims appeared in a powerful photograph publicising the allegations on the cover of New York Magazine just a week after his 2005 deposition was released. Whereas all too often artworks are displayed without relevant information about their complex histories; which in turn removes the work from its context and results in a one-dimensional interpretation of its historical importance, in this instance individuals coming to the Museum are encouraged to actively participate in the conversation and engage with the exhibit in a complex and thoughtful manner

One example of an active obligation to educate the public about the history of an artwork occurred at the conclusion of the seminal case US v. Portrait of Wally, that lasted more than a dozen years. There,  the parties agreed on a settlement whereby the heirs released their claims to a Schiele painting after being paid 19 million dollars by the Leopold Museum in Austria. As an integral part of the settlement, the Austrian museum was also obligated  to display in perpetuity a wall label narrating the ownership of the work and the tragic trajectory it took from the home of its pre-war Jewish owner into the hands of Austrian museums. In the case of Schiele’s portrait, the label now provides history about the painting’s provenance and journey as an object, a history that enriches and contextualizes the work beyond what is perceived on the surface. For each artwork thus labeled there are hundreds of thousands of artworks looted from source countries or stolen during armed conflict  that currently sit on display in museums without any mention of their journies. In the case of Nazi-era loot, where heirs may be tied up in litigation trying to get their stolen property back, museums seek to quiet title claiming, insisting that the educational value to the public overrides private interests. By hiding problematic provenance information from public audiences, museums mislead the very audience they claim they aim to enrich and educate.

As for the Cosby controversy, was putting an added label next to this temporary exhibit done simply to calm the public, or was it also an element of the self-imposed responsibility to educate the public? Not all sensitive stories receive the same degree of publicity, but that should not be a reason for any museum to exclude the history of a piece, why it became part of a museum exhibition, and what controversies surround the work. As we have discussed in an earlier piece, Museums have the burden of serving as a moral compass of the society. Current events and art exhibits inspire and create a dialogue and an exchange of ideas which arguably lasts beyond the five to thirty seconds one spends looking at a piece as reported by museum researchers worldwide.

If Cosby’s exploits are reason enough to place a sign qualifying the nature of a loan, surely museums that display stolen works should acknowledge that certain pieces are subjects of litigation or how looted art came to their institution. If museums believe that the educational value of showing these works trumps other concerns (tax breaks, stopping illicit excavation, looting, poaching, theft, etc.) than the public deserves the full story, not the abridged version.

Select Sources:

  • Elkins, James. “How Long Does It Take To Look at a Painting?” The Huffington Post., 8 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
  • “Research – Articles & Other Readings – Visual Thinking Strategies.” Research – Articles & Other Readings – Visual Thinking Strategies. Visual Thinking Strategies, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
  • Rosenbloom, Stephanie. “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum.” Editorial. The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2014. Web.
  • Russick, John, and Andrea Michelbach. “Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition 2013.” American Association of Museums – U.S. (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
  • Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira, 1996. Print.

*About the Author: Debra Friedmann, Center for Art Law  Legal Intern (Summer 2015) is a rising second-year law student at the Georgetown University Law Center. She received a B.A. in History and Studio Art from Brandeis University. Debra may be reached at

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.