Activists protesting outside the Museum of Chinese in America on July 18, 2021. One sign calls for the firing of Nancy Yao Maasbach. (photos Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Nancy Yao, president of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York’s Chinatown, has been named the inaugural director of the Smithsonian Institution’s forthcoming American Women’s History Museum. Critics have side-eyed the appointment, citing allegations of Yao’s complacency toward gentrification, class discrimination, and the carceral state through a variety of controversial decisions in the last few years of her presidency at MOCA.

“While MOCA gets to see the returns of the $35 million in jail funding that Nancy helped secure, we are happy to say so long to their disastrous president,” said Youth Against Displacement, an anti-displacement and anti-gentrification activism group in New York City, in a statement to Hyperallergic. “Instead of seeing her legacy of ashes through, Nancy is wiping the blood off her hands and fleeing to DC.”

“Her new role at this museum meant to honor women begs the question of what kind of women this museum is meant to represent?” the group added.

MOCA’s board of trustees appointed Yao, a former Goldman Sachs executive, as the museum’s president in February of 2015 while she served as the executive director at the Yale-China Association. In January of 2020, a five-alarm fire ripped through the MOCA collections and research building on 70 Mulberry Street (formerly the museum site), endangering the museum’s archive of more than 85,000 documents and objects. Yao was largely credited with spinning the devastating fire in a positive light and bringing national attention to the museum’s efforts to salvage its damaged collections. The museum was closed to the public for about a year while Yao and her team initiated “MOCA on the Road” whilst in the spotlight.

The bulk of the controversy surrounding Yao’s role at MOCA began later in October of 2020, when the activist group Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) published an open letter to the museum outlining Yao’s involvement in accepting the $35 million dollar “community give-back fund” for a permanent home and performing arts center for the museum from the Bill de Blasio administration in October of 2019. The funds were administered through de Blasio’s plan to shut down the Rikers Island detention center and create or expand jail facilities across four boroughs.

In the letter, CAB referenced Yao’s testimony at a City Public Scoping session on Borough Based Jails in September, 2018, where she complained that the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs gave the museum no money to secure a permanent home while the expanded jail complex in Chinatown would receive $300 million. While Yao continued to publicly deny accepting the fund on behalf of the museum for over a year, the Mayor’s Office published a Points of Agreement letter (document page 16) to the public on October 19, 2019 that specifically outlined its commitments to MOCA “related directly to the borough-based jails system.”

Nancy Yao Maasbach facing protesters outside the museum on July 18, 2021

CAB also criticized Yao’s and the museum’s affiliation with board member and luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu, stating that his development projects directly contributed to the gentrification of Chinatown and deepened the chasm between members of the Chinese elite and the working class.

In a statement to Hyperallergic this week, CAB said they were “appalled” that Yao was appointed to the Smithsonian museum.

“For the last several years, the Chinatown community has been calling on Yao to take accountability and reject the jail concession. Instead of any meaningful engagement with the demands to reject this jail collusion money, Yao chose to repeatedly slander and call the police on protestors and demonize the artists who withdrew their work from the museum in protest,” CAB said. “Her stained leadership and reputation as a sell out in the Chinatown community is widely known.”

MOCA reopened to the public in July 2021 to a flurry of protests outside the museum space at 215 Centre Street. Outraged by MOCA’s acceptance of the $35 million and Chu’s connection to the closing of beloved dim sum restaurant Jing Fong, dozens of protesters young and old picketed outside the museum calling for boycotts, rejecting the fund, and removing Chu from the museum board. Amidst the protests and artwork withdrawals from artists, Yao maintained to Hyperallergic that the museum has always been against the jail construction.

After a week of protests, Yao publicly accused elderly protesters of being paid to picket by then City Council candidate Christopher Marte — a claim that both Marte and the protesters vehemently denied. The protesters began calling for Yao’s resignation from the museum following what they characterized as her “blatant racist and ageist insults” toward Chinatown’s senior citizens.

The Smithsonian Institute declined to comment on the allegations and controversies surrounding Yao’s leadership. MOCA has not replied to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

Yao will remain in her post at MOCA through this June. While the American Women’s History Museum awaits the development of a brick-and-mortar building, Yao will be tasked with “sourcing a national collection, curating permanent and current exhibitions, and creating educational resources accessible virtually,” according to a press statement.

The new and long-awaited institution is not expected to open until 2030. In the meantime, activists have a lot to say about the prospect of Yao’s leadership.

“By uplifting the president of a museum under active boycott, a woman who looks down on her own, accusing elderly women of being paid protestors and trying to bribe them with cheap tote bags, calling the cops on young women on the picket line, is this museum just trying to be a National version of MOCA, falsely celebrating a different kind of identity?” said Youth Against Displacement.

“Nancy Yao’s legacy will be that she helped transform a community history museum into an institution more concerned with corporate and government fundraising at any cost,” CAB added. “We are disappointed that the Smithsonian has chosen to ignore the irreparable harm she has caused on our communities by promoting incarceration, gentrification and labor exploitation.”

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...