The artist collective Godzilla has withdrawn from a planned retrospective dedicated to its activism at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) to protest the New York museum’s “complicity” in a city plan to build a new jail in Chinatown.
In a letter to MOCA on March 5, the group announced its withdrawal from the exhibition Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990-2001, slated for May. The letter was signed by 19 members of the collective, among them artists like Tomie Arai, Todd Ayoung, Shelly Bahl, and Alexandra Chang.
“We cannot, in good conscience, entrust the legacy of Godzilla as an artist activist organization, to a cultural institution whose leadership ignores, and even seeks to silence critical voices from its community,” Godzilla’s letter read. “The complicity of MOCA’s leadership with the jail plan amounts to supporting the system of mass incarceration and policing that disproportionately affect Black and Brown lives.”
In response, the museum canceled the exhibition, which was originally intended to feature 33 artists from the coalition.
At the crux of the withdrawal is New York City’s plan to replace the infamous Rikers Island jail complex with four borough-based jails, including one at 125 White Street in Chinatown. As part of a “community give-back” deal proposed by the city to impacted boroughs, MOCA is expected to receive $35 million for a permanent home and a performing arts space. (The museum’s main building is currently located at Centre Street; its archive on the nearby Mulberry Street was severely damaged in a fire last February.)
Local social justice advocates and prison abolition groups, including Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and Chinatown-International District (CID), have vociferously opposed the plan, accusing MOCA of benefiting from mass incarceration. But in January, MOCA posted a statement on its website asserting that it “has always been unalterably opposed to building a jail in Chinatown,” adding that its position on this jail expansion plan “may not have been understood by some individuals who advocate for Chinatown.”
“[T]he MOCA team has expressed MOCA’s opposition to a Chinatown jail in public interviews, conversations, and meetings with hundreds of people across the spectrum of Chinatown organizations, Asian American organizations, and community advocacy groups since plans were first announced in August 2018,” the statement said. The museum continued to say that it has documented the activism against the jail plan “as an important part of the history of activism in Chinatown.”
In response to MOCA, the group said the museum’s January statement “grossly misrepresents its past and present position and how its leadership sought to actually benefit from the jail construction — an initiative that has been documented on video, audio and in transcripts.”
Members of the activist cohort added that they are “deeply disappointed that MOCA has not lived up to its reputation and responsibility as a ‘trusted community anchor’ and National Treasure.”
“How can we exhibit our work within the walls of an institution when the values of
its leadership betray our own founding principles?” they asked.
Herb Tam, MOCA’S curator and director of exhibitions, informed Godzilla of the museum’s decision to cancel the exhibition in a letter sent on March 9. Tam defended the museum’s leadership and reiterated MOCA’s stated opposition to the jail plan.
“I respect the right of artists to withdraw their participation from projects if they do not feel morally aligned with the presenting institution, and I believe in the importance of protest in changing attitudes and keeping power in check,” Tam wrote in his letter to Godzilla. “But I am saddened that the story of Godzilla, the important work of its artists as individuals, and the interpretive work of contextualizing it all into art history will not be shown at MOCA, whose leadership and staff enthusiastically supported the project, with grit and determination, from its conception in 2017 to today when we decided to cancel it.”
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Read the letter, which is reproduced in full, below:
March 5, 2021
Dear Nancy, MOCA Board and Staff,
We are writing to inform you of our official withdrawal from MOCA’s planned exhibition, Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990-2001.We do so after much soul-searching and exhaustive brain-storming. We hope by now you understand the reasons, which we have written and spoken of many times. But to reiterate:
- MOCA’s leadership has ignored our pleas to communicate openly and publicly with the community it claims to represent. The Museum’s recent statement of being “unalterably opposed” to the jail in Chinatown grossly misrepresents its past and present position and how its leadership sought to actually benefit from the jail construction — an initiative that has been documented on video, audio and in transcripts. (In a transcript of a hearing with the city on September 27, 2018, made available through The Chinatown Core Block Association, MOCA President Nancy Maasbach makes an explicit appeal for funds in light of the city jail plan. The Points of Agreement (PoA) document of October 18, 2019 issued by the Office of the Mayor and the New York City Council shows MOCA was subsequently promised $35 million, the largest concession granted to any organization in Lower Manhattan.)
- We cannot, in good conscience, entrust the legacy of Godzilla as an artist activist organization, to a cultural institution whose leadership ignores, and even seeks to silence critical voices from its community. Differing viewpoints serve to strengthen an organization and allow it to evolve in healthy and necessary ways. How can we exhibit our work within the walls of an institution when the values of its leadership betray our own founding principles?
- In the context of global protests for racial justice, what do MOCA’s claims of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Indigenous sovereignty truly mean? The complicity of MOCA’s leadership with the jail plan amounts to supporting the system of mass incarceration and policing that disproportionately affect Black and Brown lives.
- This is a universal moment of reckoning when ALL our cultural institutions – big and small, National Treasures or not — their staff and Boards are rightfully being held to account. We must question the moral implications for MOCA to be connected to the construction of new jails through the actions of its leaders. If it is not appropriate for war profiteer Warren Kanders or the opiate-dealing Sackler family to sit on the Boards of our city’s museums, how ethical is it for MOCA to receive $35 million for its complicit support of an ever-expanding criminal justice system — against the wishes of its community? We must also question the problems posed by the fact of MOCA’s Board Co-Chair being a major property owner in Chinatown, a powerful landlord whose business interests profoundly affect the lives and livelihoods of community members — including the employees of Jing Fong restaurant which has long been a hospitable venue for local arts events.
We Godzilla signatories are deeply disappointed that MOCA has not lived up to its reputation and responsibility as a “trusted community anchor” and National Treasure. We had fervently hoped the Museum’s leaders might summon the will and courage to join with the Chinatown community, with those whose lives are most directly affected by the entire New York City Jail Plan, and with those who for decades helped build and shape the Museum’s mission.
Sung Ho Choi
Yong Soon Min