By BRETT ZONGKER
WASHINGTON — Dozens of emails and comments left at the Smithsonian Institution show the public appears to be sharply divided over an exhibition featuring Bill Cosby’s art collection, which the museum has stood behind since the comedian admitted obtaining drugs to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex.
The Smithsonian has received 35 emails about the exhibit in the month of July alone as of Wednesday, with the vast majority calling for the National Museum of African Art to take down its “Conversations” exhibit. The display, which is set to run through January, features Cosby’s African-American art collection paired with African art. A few thanked the Smithsonian for keeping the exhibit on view.
In a comment book at the exhibit, however, visitors have left mostly positive messages spanning 74 pages.
“Art is art. This is something worth seeing,” one visitor wrote in a comment signed MC. “I’m glad the Smithsonian had the guts to keep the Cosby collection. Bravo!”
Emailed comments range from polite protests to angry questions over how the Smithsonian could showcase Cosby’s collection. One called the display “sad and pathetic,” while another called it “disgusting.” A few threatened to boycott the museum complex, cancel their memberships or withhold future donations.
“By continuing to display any works of art of, by, through Bill Cosby demonstrates and shows how the Smithsonian Institute feels about women,” one person wrote. “We will no longer be supporters of The Smithsonian.”
Names of those who emailed comments were redacted as a condition of their release to The Associated Press. The Smithsonian received a few comments before July but did not release those.
Messages began rolling in after the Smithsonian told the AP in a story published July 12 why it was keeping the exhibit, funded by Cosby and his wife Camille. The museum has said the exhibit “is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not the owners of the collections.”
Comments also came after the Smithsonian posted a disclaimer online and in the museum saying it does not condone Cosby’s alleged behavior.
Museum experts and scholars have said taking an exhibit down would trample on the curatorial integrity and academic freedom behind its creation. The Smithsonian has been accused of censorship for changing exhibits under pressure in the past.
Numerous comments left in the comment book suggest many visitors see a distinction between the art and the celebrity who collected the pieces.
“Thank you for standing by the decision to exhibit and show this outstanding collection,” wrote visitor Aaro Jean Bell-Reid of Silver Spring, Maryland. “We should remember that the real man behind this collection is (art scholar) David Driskell. Cosby only wrote the checks.”
Driskell advised the Cosbys on building their art collection over several decades. The collection features many paintings and sculptures by significant African-American artists, and most of the pieces have never been shown in public before.
Later, Bell-Reid said she would have a different view if Cosby had created the art in the exhibit.
In the art gallery Wednesday, many young visitors streamed through the galleries with camp or school groups, seemingly oblivious to the controversy.
Art lover George Bierlin, a retiree from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, who spends part of the year in southern Maryland, sat down for a longer gaze at some of Cosby’s family quilts and other artworks. He said he wanted to see it before it was possibly pulled down, which he said would be “the ultimate caving to political correctness.”
“To me, if you can’t separate the art from the collector and the artist, then gee, I guess I should never see a Roman Polanski movie,” he said, referring to the filmmaker who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Ellen Bierlin, his wife, agreed, saying Cosby’s controversy doesn’t have anything to do with notable artworks the public hasn’t been able to see before.
“One thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” she said. “I’m not agreeing with what he did or whatever, but that’s that and this is this.”