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Bill Cosby’s Art Collection Joins African Art at the Smithsonian

Holland Cotter | NY Times   in  ·
November 7, 2014

WASHINGTON — On an impulse, in the early 1960s, a cultural attaché for the State Department named Warren M. Robbins started buying African art, first one piece, then many, and filled his Washington house with sculptures and textiles. In 1964, he turned his basement into a mini-museum and opened it to visitors, partly as a gesture of cross-cultural outreach at a time of high racial tension in the capital and across the land.

Later in the same decade, Bill Cosby, already a television star, was making shopping trips to the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles, a space featuring new art by African-Americans. Learning as he went, he not only bought for himself, but also arranged to have art by black artists displayed on the walls of the sets where he filmed, with the aim of giving popular exposure, via TV, to work ignored by the art establishment.

Mr. Robbins’s basement museum eventually became a major Washington institution, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, with a home on the National Mall. The African-American collection assembled by Mr. Cosby, now private and little seen, has, by repute, an institutional status of its own. On Sunday, it will make its public debut at the museum in an exhibition called “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” from the museum’s holdings and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Collection.


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