TIME celebrities

The Smithsonian Won’t Take Down Bill Cosby’s Art Collection

Bill Cosby
Evan Vucci—AP Bill Cosby gestures during an interview about "Conversations: African and African-American Artworks in Dialogue" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington on Nov. 6, 2014

"It's not about the life and career of Bill Cosby. It's about the artists"

(WASHINGTON) — Over the past seven months, as sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Cosby mounted, a top Smithsonian official met privately with museum directors across the sprawling complex on the National Mall to decide what to do about an exhibit showcasing Cosby’s private art collection.

While many companies and universities were distancing themselves from the comedian, Smithsonian officials ultimately concluded the exhibit should continue.

“First and fundamentally, this is an art exhibit,” Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for art, history and culture told The Associated Press. “So it’s not about the life and career of Bill Cosby. It’s about the artists.”

About a third of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s 50th anniversary exhibition came from Bill and Camille Cosby’s extensive African-American art collection, and two-thirds came from the museum’s own collection.

Most of the Cosby collection had never before been seen by the public. It includes paintings by one-time slaves, pieces commissioned for the Cosbys, a piece by Cosby’s daughter and quilts made in tribute to Cosby and his slain son, Ennis. The exhibit also includes images of Cosby and quotations from him.

Even without the assault allegations, the exhibit raised concerns. Some critics frown on showcasing a private collection in a prominent museum because it can enhance the artwork’s market value. Also, Camille Cosby sits on the museum’s board and initiated the loan, which raises questions about conflicts of interest.

Now the Smithsonian has revealed to The Associated Press that the Cosbys also funded the exhibition with a $716,000 gift, which virtually covers the entire cost. Museum industry guidelines call for museums to make public the source of funding when an art lender funds an exhibit. The Cosbys’ financial donation was not disclosed in press materials issued by the Smithsonian to publicize the exhibit, nor mentioned on the museum’s website. The exhibit opened in November. The Smithsonian said the information was available to anyone who specifically requested it.

Noah Kupferman, an art market expert at Shapiro Auctions who has taught about the economics of fine art, said such financial arrangements are not unprecedented, but museums must be transparent about them.

“It just raises a little eyebrow that a trustee of a museum is lending (her) own collection, funding part of the exhibition and the exhibition is highlighting works … by less well-known artists whose work is considered by some to be undervalued,” he said. “Repositioning these artists’ works as suddenly important could have significant positive effect on their economic value.”

The exhibit has drawn 150,000 visitors so far, according to the Smithsonian.

A promotion for the exhibit is prominently displayed on Cosby’s website even as his reputation has collapsed in recent months amid accusations of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women. Many of the woman alleged that he drugged and raped them.

Cosby, who turns 78 on Sunday, has never been charged with a crime. He has denied some accusations, while declining to comment or respond to others.

Court documents obtained by The Associated Press revealed Cosby admitted under oath that he obtained quaaludes to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex.

In response to the admission, Walt Disney World removed a statue of Cosby. Bounce TV and Centric networks stopped re-running “The Cosby Show,” and some civil rights leaders called for Cosby’s star to be removed from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A sexual assault awareness group has petitioned the White House to revoke Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Some art critics have called for the Smithsonian to stop showcasing Cosby’s art collection. The museum director, Johnnetta Cole, declined to discuss the exhibit.

Cole, who is also the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, is close with the Cosbys. At a preview for the exhibition, the Cosbys talked warmly of Cole and recalled how Camille Cosby wrote a $20 million check to Spelman College when Cole was president of the Atlanta school. In December, Spelman suspended its program funded by the Cosbys.

The Smithsonian defended the exhibit on its artistic merits.

“We certainly don’t condone his behavior,” Kurin said. “We’re just as deeply disturbed and disappointed as I think everybody else. But it’s not about Mr. Cosby. This is an art exhibit.”

The Smithsonian is sensitive about changing exhibits.

In the past, it has removed some controversial pieces of exhibits under pressure, but “we’ve never taken an exhibit down,” said Kurin, who has worked at the museum complex for decades.

In 2010, the Smithsonian was accused of censorship when it removed a video from the National Portrait Gallery exhibit about how sexual orientation and gender identity have shaped American art after complaints from a Catholic group and members of Congress.

An outside review concluded that unless there is an error, changes should not be made to an exhibit once it’s opened without a full consultation with curators, museum directors and the Smithsonian’s governing board.

For many museum experts and scholars, removing the Cosby exhibit would set a dangerous precedent.

“You’d be sort of stomping all over the curatorial integrity of what you’ve put up,” said Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum. “I think if museums had to investigate the morals of every lender, that would be kind of a new and very difficult situation. Really, it’s about the art.”

Museums have displayed privately held art collections for decades because they can complement a museum’s own collection, said Martha Morris, assistant director of museum studies at George Washington University.

“The only thing that could possibly be a criticism is that once a private collection is on display in an art museum … it begins to add to its status,” Morris said. “That could potentially add to its value if the collector wanted to sell something, for example, or even give it away to a nonprofit for a tax benefit.”

But an art loan could also lead to a donation of artwork to a museum, Morris said.

Smithsonian lawyers reviewed the Cosby loan and determined any increase in the artworks’ value was a non-issue, in part because the Cosbys did not intend to sell the art, Kurin said.

TIME Fine Art

Portrait of Pope Benedict XVI Made of Condoms Sparks Controversy in Milwaukee

Courtesy of Niki Johnson Niki Johnson American, b. 1977), "Eggs Benedict," 2013. Latex condoms, 83 × 60 × 14 in. (210.82 × 152.4 × 35.56 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Joseph R. Pabst

The work was inspired by the former pope's comments on AIDS in Africa

A portrait of Pope Benedict XVI made of 17,000 condoms has drawn fierce criticism—and support—at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“Eggs Benedict,” created by Niki Johnson, was purchased by a local gay rights advocate for $25,000 and donated to the museum, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. Johnson says she was inspired by the former pope’s 2009 remarks that condoms would only worsen the problem of AIDS in Africa.

While some like-minded fans of the work have called the museum in support, it has also drawn powerful critics. Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki has condemned the portrait, and his chief of staff called it “either an intentional attack on a faith tradition and its teachings or a publicity stunt for the artist.” Several longtime friends of the museum have canceled their memberships in protest, and one docent resigned.

The museum’s director, Dan Keegan, said in a statement, “Our hope is that the piece will bring not only controversy, but room for conversation—about the underlying discussion the artist intended as well as regarding the role of art in public discussion.” He added that the museum has sold a record number of memberships in the last 10 days.

“Eggs Benedict” is scheduled to go on display this November after renovations are completed on the museum’s collections galleries; the institution is considering presenting an interfaith panel on debate around the work.

[Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel]

TIME Fine Art

See the Outrageous Spectrum of Damien Hirst’s Art

As the iconic English artist turns 50, a look back at some of his most famous works

It’s hard to say how much longer Damien Hirst can be called the enfant terrible of the art world—with his 50th birthday on Sunday, he’s no longer anywhere near an “enfant,” and his work is now so familiar to many that much of its shock appeal has faded.

But some pieces will always polarize the public, some of which continue to be turned off by his diamond-encrusted skulls and formaldehyde-preserved animals (though critics have mostly agreed upon his talent and influence). And with his works frequently fetching millions at auction, there’s no denying his impact on the market.

TIME Fine Art

Virgin Mary Painting Encrusted With Elephant Dung to Go to Auction for $2.3 Million

Artist Chris Ofili's controversial work The Holy V
Doug Kanter—AFP/Getty Images Artist Chris Ofili's controversial work "The Holy Virgin Mary" is seen in the Brooklyn Museum of Art as part of the Sensation exhibit in New York 30 September 1999.

Chris Ofili’s "The Holy Virgin Mary" stirred controversy when it debuted

Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” created a stink when it showed in New York in 1999—then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was among the protesters of the elephant dung-encrusted portrait of the Madonna surrounded by photos of butts. But now its upcoming auction may prove the work’s value once and for all: Christie’s in London has set an estimated price of $2.3 million.

Ofili was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who scandalized and delighted the art world with works like Tracy Emin’s “My Bed,” a mattress covered in detritus like empty liquor bottles and used condoms, and Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in formaldehyde. Ofili is a winner of the prestigious Turner Prize and has been recognized with several high-profile retrospectives.

An Australian collector, David Walsh, is the current owner of the 8-foot-tall painting, and says the proceeds will go toward funding an expansion of his Museum of Old and New Art. The auction is set to take place June 30.

[NYT]

TIME Fine Art

Why Aren’t American Museums Doing more to Return Nazi-Looted Art?

Portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I. D150. 138:138 cm. Oil on canvas. 1907
Imagno / Getty Images Portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Oil on Canvas by Gustav Klimt. 1907

Seventeen years after the US hosted the Washington conference on Nazi-confiscated art and pledged to facilitate “just and fair” solutions, a lack of transparency in American museums remains

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Helen Mirren’s latest film, Woman in Gold, tells a true story of an arts battle.

Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, a naturalized US citizen who sues the Austrian government to recover a glittering, golden portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Viennese art nouveau master Gustav Klimt and looted from her family’s home by the Nazis.

Justice prevails through pressure imposed by US courts: the portrait of Adele finds a welcoming new home in America.

While Woman in Gold is a feel-good, triumphant tale for American audiences, it’s important to note that the country’s own art museums still have work to do to ensure justice for Holocaust victims. The story of this one painting doesn’t mitigate the fact that at least 100,000 works of art confiscated by the Nazis haven’t been returned to rightful owners.

In museums across the US there are paintings, sculptures and other works of art with provenance gaps from the Nazi era, signaling a need for ongoing research into rightful ownership.

An international court battle

The Austrian government believed the painting had been willed to them in 1925 by its subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer. For this reason, they argued the painting had nothing to do with restitution – the return of works to the victims of Nazi theft or their heirs.

However, in 1998 Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin unearthed documents in Austrian archives indicating that Adele’s husband Ferdinand had been the rightful owner when the Nazis seized the collection in 1938.

Ferdinand had died nearly penniless in Zurich in 1945, leaving all his assets to his niece Maria Altmann, along with her brother and sister.

Czernin’s findings boosted Altmann’s claims to the portrait and four other Klimt paintings still held by the Austrian government.

Ultimately, Altmann – a naturalized US citizen – decided to file her claim in a US court by invoking the Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act. The law provides exceptions to sovereign immunity when a country violates international law with US commercial interests at stake.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Altmann’s favor in 2004.

Rather than face a protracted legal battle, Austria offered to try the case via an arbitration panel of Austrian experts. The panel awarded the painting to Altmann.

Altmann would eventually sell the portrait to cosmetics heir and World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder for a then-record sum of $135 million.

Austria was already seeking to make amends

Altmann’s ultimate victory allowed Americans to relish the US role in the restitution of Nazi-looted art.

In this way, Woman in Gold continues a heroic art recovery narrative also reflected in The Monuments Men, the 2014 George Clooney film that extols the bravery of American men who risked their lives to recover thousands of works from Nazi repositories in castles, churches and salt mines.

But Woman in Gold glosses over the broader historical context of art restitution.

In fact, after decades of thwarting restitution claims, the Austrian government – like other European countries – had already been actively taking steps to compensate victims of Nazi persecution.

In 1996, it auctioned looted artworks still held by the government, giving $14.6 million in proceeds to Jewish organizations.

Two years later, Austria was among 44 countries that signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a non-binding agreement to pursue just and fair solutions in restitution cases.

And the same year, an Austrian Federal Art Restitution Law provided for restitution of works held by state museums that had been donated under duress or looted in the Nazi era.

Americans aren’t always heroes in the story

Art enthusiasts in America should ask themselves whether more could be done to ensure US museums are not holding Nazi-looted art.

After World War II, some American museums expanded their collections by purchasing art or accepting donations without researching the objects’ ownership history in the Nazi era.

In Manhattan not far from the Neue Galerie, where the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait now hangs, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) holds one of the greatest modern art collections in the world.

But according to historian Jonathan Petropoulos, author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr, acquired pieces confiscated or stolen by the Third Reich.

And MoMa recently defended its ownership of three paintings by German artist George Grosz purchased by MoMA in 1952 from Curt Valentin, a New York dealer who had funneled art from Nazi Germany to the US.

In 2009 heirs of the artist had filed a restitution lawsuit in US District Court, which found the statute of limitations invalidated the heirs’ claim, a decision confirmed on appeal in 2010.

MoMA won a legal victory but the ethical implications are less clear.

Uncertainty remains about the origin of other works in the collection. The MoMA Provenance Research Project provides a list of 800 works under investigation. But ownership gaps abound. In each case, there’s no indication of ongoing research.

Meanwhile in Pasadena, California, the Norton Simon museum is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over two Cranach paintings claimed by Marei von Saher, heir of the Jewish Dutch dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose collection was seized by Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

The Norton Simon website does have a general statement on the importance of provenance research and “filling gaps” in Nazi-era ownership. But it provides no list of relevant works in the collection.

And while most US art museums agree to abide by ethical standards in acquisitions and provenance research established by the American Alliance of Museums, there’s no government-mandated enforcement mechanism.

So here we are today: 17 years after the US hosted the Washington conference on Nazi-confiscated art and pledged to facilitate “just and fair” solutions, a lack of transparency in American museums remains.

Yes, the “Woman in Gold” was returned to its proper owner. But how many Nazi-era portraits, landscapes and still-lifes painted in countless colors remain in America’s museums – havens that are not their rightful homes?

Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at University of Denver

TIME Art

How the Art World Changed Its Mind About Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, New York. c. 1960–61.
Minoru Niizuma—Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York Yoko Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, New York. c. 1960–61.

TIME was not the only one critical of the 'entrepreneur of happenings'

Yoko Ono made her “unofficial” debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1971, by advertising a “one woman show” that didn’t actually exist. What a difference four decades makes. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” a new MoMA exhibition of her work opening May 17, is a belated recognition of the importance of Ono’s conceptual and performance art in the 1960s.

But MoMA isn’t the only institution that did not give Ono much attention in the years before her name was linked to John Lennon’s. Her early work was pretty far out, and it was clear that not everybody got it.

Case in point: When Ono made her first appearance in TIME in 1966 as part of a report on the scene at a week-long “Destruction in Art Symposium” in London, the magazine’s eye-rolling tone was clear as it described her “fey Zen variant on the dominant theme” to “spread out a cloth on which she drew the outlines of people’s shadows, then [fold] it up to take their shadows prisoner.”

A year later, Ono merited a paragraph under the headline for her recent “show-biz flop.” As TIME reported:

In London last week, a widely heralded underground film called No. 4 had its world premiere, showing nothing but some 300 nude British buttocks, a fresh one every 15 seconds or so for 76 minutes. For sound track, there were the taped comments of the volunteers. “I’m a bit cynical about mine,” said a girl who described herself as a model, “because it’s worth money.” The director was Miss Yoko Ono, 34, a Tokyo-born artist-composer and currently an entrepreneur of happenings in London. The premiere was a benefit for Britain’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, a prestigious public patron headed by eminent Art Philosopher Sir Herbert Read. But the point of it all was lost on most Londoners. Sales of the opening-night tickets ($4.20 top) were so slow that many had to be given away. The most appreciative audience response came ten minutes (and 40 rumps) along, when a spectator leaped onstage and stroked the screen image. By the halfway point, fully two-thirds of the first-nighters had departed.

By 1968, she had become linked with Lennon, first as a “free female soul” with whom he was opening an art exhibit—and soon after as the avant-garde artist for whom he was leaving his wife Cynthia. Decades later, though her relationship with Lennon has remained a defining element of her public life, the museum at which she was once able to mount only a theoretical show is giving her a real solo exhibition.

Among the pieces on show: Film No. 4.

TIME Fine Art

See Photos From Yoko Ono’s MoMA Exhibit

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 will run at the MoMA in New York City from May 17 to Sept. 7

Yoko Ono’s art isn’t always easy to follow—literally. In 1971, the avant-garde artist and musician exhibited an unauthorized show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Museum of Modern (F)art that featured little more than a man waiting outside the building with a sandwich board encouraging visitors to chase flies she had released in and around the museum. Now, a new exhibit at that same museum, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, makes experience her art much easier by bringing together many, often interactive works from that decade in one place. The show, the MoMA’s first one dedicated entirely to Ono’s work, opens May 17 and runs through September 7.

TIME Fine Art

Christie’s Just Sold Over $1 Billion Worth of Artwork in Three Days

Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's, takes bids at an auction for the art work, "Les femmes d'Alger (Version O)" painted by Pablo Picasso, at Christie's on May 11, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's, takes bids at an auction for the art work, "Les femmes d'Alger (Version O)" painted by Pablo Picasso, at Christie's on May 11, 2015 in New York City

And they still haven't finished their sales for the week

With paintings like Mark Rothko’s “No.10″ going for $82 million or Andy Warhol’s “Colored Mona Lisa” topping $56 million, it is no wonder Christie’s made history Wednesday by becoming the first auction house to cross the $1 billion mark in total art sales in one week.

According to the auction house, 72 postwar and contemporary artworks sold for just under $660 million in a New York evening auction. This comes on the heels of Christie’s “Looking Forward to the Past” event that made over $705 million on Monday. Among the latter’s sales were Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger, Version O” becoming the most valuable single piece of artwork sold at an auction when it fetched over $179 million.

Christie’s is set to add to the record on Thursday with a day and night sale. They will have another day sale on Friday.

And it isn’t just Christie’s raking in the dough. Competitor Sotheby’s notched up $380 million on a Tuesday evening sale and over $90 million on a Wednesday day auction.

TIME Fine Art

See the Picasso Painting That Just Set a World Record for Art at Auction

It surpassed a Francis Bacon piece that sold in 2013

Spring Art Auctions Preview
Courtesy of Christie’s and the Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS)/APPablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers (Version O),” auctioned at Christie’s in New York City on May 11, 2015.

A Picasso painting became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction on Monday, going for more than $179 million.

Christie’s said “Women of Algiers (Version O)” sold for $179,365,000. That figure, which the Associated Press reports to include the auction house’s premium, surpasses a Francis Bacon work called “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” that held the top spot, also selling at Christie’s for $142.4 million in 2013.

Picasso painted the work as part of a 15-painting series (versions A through O) created in 1954 and 1955, inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 “Women of Algiers.” Industry experts say art world prices are staying high as collectors see these top works as strong and lasting investments.

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