Nancy Yao at the 2021 New York Film Festival Q&A for Who Killed Vincent Chin? (photo by Slaven Vlasic/Stringer via Getty Images)

Following a March announcement of Nancy Yao as the inaugural director of the American Women’s History Museum, the Smithsonian Institution will be reviewing allegations against Yao made by former employees during her leadership at Manhattan’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and outlined in two settled lawsuits. As initially reported by the Washington Post today, April 20, several former employees who spoke under the condition of anonymity said that Yao was “tolerant of boorish, sexually inappropriate behavior by male employees, of failing to take appropriate steps when complaints were reported to her and of being retaliatory against those who reported harassment allegations.”

In a statement provided to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution confirmed that it has “engaged a firm” and is “immediately undertaking a more comprehensive review of the underlying facts and will re-evaluate the situation once that is complete.” The spokesperson added that the Smithsonian Institution was aware of the past lawsuits against Yao and MOCA and that the claims were dismissed by agreement of the parties.

The spokesperson was referring to the 2021 lawsuit filed by former MOCA employee Joyce Huang on behalf of two female employees experiencing sexual harassment from a male supervisor and a male facilities manager on and off the clock. Huang alleged that she and her husband were terminated from their posts in 2019 at the museum in retaliation for speaking up against the sexual harassment the two female employees, one college-aged intern and one grant writer associate, had experienced.

According to the lawsuit, Huang’s and the intern’s supervisor, Director for Programs and Guest Experience Joseph Duong, and Facilities Manager Erwin Geronimo “frequently made inappropriate and sexually charged statements in front of women, as to both employees and visitors, in the workplace.” One such example is when Duong had sent the intern a text message saying “If I was a teenage boy I’d sent you a naked pic already,” which the intern shared with Huang in or around January 2019. The intern also reported that Duong and Geronimo made suggestive comments about her mother when she had visited the museum, and expressed discomfort when Duong intentionally scheduled her to close the museum or have evening shifts with him.

At the end of January 2019, Huang reported these concerns during an offsite meeting with the MOCA human resources manager, Josh Davis, who reportedly did not take notes during the meeting and did not file any investigative documents regarding the complaints. Huang was then terminated without warning because she “lacked professionalism and productivity and had poor judgment” on February 6, 2019, and believes it was in retaliation for raising these concerns.

Yao has denied all allegations of retaliation since the suit was filed and maintains her stance to this day, telling the Washington Post via text message that Huang and two other employees were terminated due to “severe budget pressures.”

Huang reached a settlement in September of 2021, six months after the lawsuit was filed. Two other former employees, Grayson Chin and Justin Onne, who separately filed suits regarding wrongful termination against Yao and MOCA, also reached settlements — Onne apparently agreed to a $55,000 settlement.

“We take these allegations seriously and want to ensure a fair and more comprehensive review,” the Smithsonian Institution’s spokesperson said. It was confirmed that the Mintz Group will be conducting the external review of the accusations against Yao and MOCA, after which the Smithsonian will “re-evaluate the situation.” The Mintz Group has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Aside from the accusations of wrongful termination on a retaliatory basis, Yao has been criticized during her post at MOCA for accepting a $35M “community give-back fund” from the de Blasio administration in 2019 for support in expanding the jail facilities in Chinatown to facilitate the closure of the Rikers Island correctional institution. Chinatown residents also criticized Yao’s and MOCA’s connection to board member and luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu who was reportedly responsible for the closure of beloved dim sum restaurant Jing Fong. When Chinatown residents protested the reopening of the museum for Yao’s acceptance of the fund and for Chu’s involvement in the closing of Jing Fong, Yao reportedly accused elder protestors who spoke English as a second language of being paid to picket.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a MOCA spokesperson sent the following statement: “MOCA is proud to amplify the stories, contributions, and often overlooked history of the Chinese-American diaspora in America — and our sole focus remains on pursuing that mission and opening our future home at 215 Centre Street in New York City.”

The New York City-based activist group Youth Against Displacement recently wrote an op-ed for Hyperallergic, “Nancy Yao Will Not Be Missed,” in response to the news of the Smithsonian’s appointment.

“In MOCA’s announcement of the news, the museum thanked Yao for all she has done to put MOCA in the position to tell the ‘truths about what it has meant, now means, and will mean, to be Chinese American,’” Youth Against Displacement wrote. “One has to ask what kind of ‘Chinese American’ she was telling the truth about.”

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...

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