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Bill Cosby's ties to D.C. establishments being tested

12/04/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST
Two famous institutions in the U.S. capital — one renowned for its art, the other for its chili dogs — have ties to Bill Cosby that are now coming under scrutiny because of the growing controversy around the actor.

At Washington's legendary Ben's Chili Bowl, Cosby's face is a work of art painted on the side of the historic building. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, it is works of art owned by Cosby that are on display. The new exhibit opened just as the recent allegations of sexual misconduct piled up.

The connection to Cosby at both of these D.C. landmarks has prompted debate in the city about how they should respond. A Washington Post columnist recently wrote that the museum and the family-owned restaurant should "wake up" and cut ties with Cosby. The colourful mural bearing the comedian's smiling visage should be taken down, Clinton Yates wrote.

On Tuesday, customers coming in for a warm chili dog on a chilly, drizzly day, expressed the opposite opinion: the mural should stay — for now, at least.

"It would seem premature," said Chris Grey, as his piping-hot dog smothered in a brown scoop of chili awaited him. Ben's might want to take action once Cosby answers the allegations but until or unless he does that, "the jury is still out," said Grey.

"I feel like it's too early to tell and that may be a little drastic," another customer, Jim Peck, said about taking Cosby off the wall.

Cosby a customer for more than 50 years

"Isn't this a country where you are innocent until proven guilty? And he hasn't been proven guilty of anything yet," Rhett James, a D.C. resident, said as he walked past Ben's. "I'm fine with it being there," he said of the mural.

The allegations that the 77-year-old actor drugged and sexually assaulted women years ago have been making headlines for weeks. Cosby, through his lawyer, has denied any wrongdoing and no charges have been laid.

But the headlines have had a disastrous impact on Cosby's career and reputation. TV and live appearances have been nixed, NBC scrapped a show that was in development, specials on the Comedy Network and Netflix were abandoned, and universities Cosby was associated with have distanced themselves.

Cosby's relationship with Ben's Chili Bowl goes back more than 50 years and he's considered a member of the family. Ben Ali opened it in 1958 (his children now operate it and they have kept all the original furniture) and soon after, Cosby became one of Ben's first loyal customers.

He brought Camille, now his wife, there in the early 1960s when they were dating and before he was a star. He remained loyal to Ben's after becoming a household name. In the 1980s, it's where he celebrated The Cosby Show shooting to the top of the ratings with a press conference. He's been there for all the big anniversary celebrations.

Cosby's loyalty has been honoured in return. In addition to the mural, there is a dish named after him, multiple photos decorate the walls, and a sign behind the cash tells customers that Cosby is one of two people who eats for free – President Barack Obama, whose face is on the mural next to Cosby's, is the other one.

The relationship between Cosby and the Alis is long and personal. Over at the African Art Museum, it's a more recent connection. The exhibit, Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, was in the works for two years.

It opened Nov. 9 while stories about Cosby dominated news cycles. It features more than 60 pieces from Cosby's private collection, on display publicly for the first time, along with art owned by the museum.  

Museum 'aware' of allegations

 "What do they do now? They're in a really complicated and uncomfortable position," Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post's art reviewer, said in an interview.

The museum responded by issuing a statement on Nov.24 saying it is "aware of the controversy surrounding Bill Cosby," but wants to stay out of it.

"Exhibiting this important collection does not imply any position on the serious allegations that have been made against Mr. Cosby. The exhibition is centrally about the artworks and the artists who created them," the statement read.

The problem though, according to Kennicott, is that it's not all about the artists. The exhibit prominently features Cosby himself. A huge quilt with images of his face hangs on the back wall. It's the birthday quilt, commissioned by Camille as a gift, a panel explains.

Several family quilts, a portrait of the Cosbys and a painting by their daughter are all part of the show. Quotes from Cosby describe some pieces on panels and in large text on the wall and a press release announcing the opening uses him in the title.

It was a mistake for the museum to build the exhibit around Cosby's celebrity and personality, Kennicott wrote in a recent column. Museums shouldn't be in the business of showing private collections anyway, and by doing so the Smithsonian put itself at risk with Cosby, in his view.

Cancelling the show would come at a huge cost to the museum, Kennicott said, and there isn't necessarily overwhelming support for that idea. But he does have some advice: "They could take steps to decrease the presence of Cosby as a personality in the exhibition," he offered.

The museum declined an interview request. The Alis also weren't comfortable talking on the record about Cosby.

Their famous D.C. restaurant is loved and respected by locals — especially those looking for a late-night, after-the-bar snack -- who are sympathetic to the Alis.

"I feel bad for the position they're in, it's hard to deal with," Renard Lathem said outside of Ben's. Cosby is a friend, he helped make Ben's a place that is written up in tour guides, and the allegations haven't been proven – but they're serious and they keep coming. "I don't think it's good for business and he's almost a face of the business….it's a tough one," said Lathem.

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