Art and controversy

Art and controversy

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Bill Cosby at a foundation fundraiser in Rhode Island, where he spoke on behalf of arts education for young people. I purposely will not name the foundation, for fear it will shine unwanted light on a organization with an important mission. In an interview over the phone, Cosby (Dr. Cosby) spoke about the importance of arts education for kids, and education in general. I was impressed by his life-long dedication to this cause. His presence at the fundraiser brought a good deal of attention and much-needed funding for the organization.

In the last year, things have changed dramatically for him. His dedication to education has been all but forgotten. In it’s place, a horrible scandal.

Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859–1937, United States The Thankful Poor 1894 Oil on canvas 90.3 x 112.5 cm (35 1/2 x 44 1/4 in.) Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Photograph by Frank Stewart

Henry Ossawa Tanner
1859–1937, United States
The Thankful Poor
1894
Oil on canvas
90.3 x 112.5 cm (35 1/2 x 44 1/4 in.)
Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.
Photograph by Frank Stewart

This spring, the Smithsonian Institution mounted Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, the 50th Anniversary exhibition at the National Museum of Africa Art, and Camille and Bill Cosby covered the cost of over $700,000. Interestingly, their generous donation was not mentioned in the press material, and though the museum indicates that they would gladly tell anyone who asked, it is unprecedented to not mention the exhibition sponsor.

Over the last 50 years, we have heard many reports of artwork from a prominent museum collection with questionable origins. Some simple research uncovers the discovery that it was stolen from a private Jewish owner by the Nazi’s and must be returned to it’s rightful owner. One recent example.

Matsuko Levin (center), Danyeun Kim, and Etsuko Yashiro were at odds with a group of younger women protesting at the MFA. Photo by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Matsuko Levin (center), Danyeun Kim, and Etsuko Yashiro were at odds with a group of younger women protesting at the MFA. Photo by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe.

Right here in Boston this summer, the MFA is responding to charges that their Kimono exhibition is racist and insensitive and cancels a program allowing visitors to try on a kimono. The curators are responding in an attempt to redirect the audience to think about the art.

This year marks 25 years since thieves stole 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, that have never been recovered and for which a $5 million reward is still being offered. The museum has continued to communicate broadly a message of conservation to those who have the work, in hopes that the work will be taken care of for the future, wherever it is.

Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is one of 13 works of art that were stolen from the Gardner Museum 25 years ago. Globe file, 1996.

Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is one of 13 works of art that were stolen from the Gardner Museum 25 years ago. Globe file, 1996.

These controversies are powerful reminders that the legacy of the art we see is more than what the image is, who painted it, or with what medium it was created. The story can even distract us from the work itself and the beauty it was meant to share with the world.

I feel for all of these institutions and for the challenge they face in helping to guide the viewer away from the controversy and back to the art. Here’s hoping that art prevails and the controversies can be left behind.

Share Button