Nancy Yao, former director of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) (all photos Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Nancy Yao, the embattled former president of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), will not lead the Smithsonian Institution’s new American Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC. The news comes after months of protests by local activists as well as an external review of allegations related to Yao’s leadership at MOCA.

The Smithsonian announced Yao as director of its new museum in March, prompting immediate backlash from Manhattan’s Chinatown community on the basis of her controversial leadership at MOCA. The Smithsonian engaged an external group to investigate allegations of Yao’s mishandling of sexual harassment complaints at MOCA as well as multiple settled lawsuits claiming wrongful termination. The investigation postponed her appointment, which was supposed to begin on June 5.

Today, July 5, the Smithsonian said in a statement that Yao “has withdrawn from the position of founding director due to family issues that require her attention.”

A spokesperson for the Smithsonian told Hyperallergic that the American Women’s History Museum “will begin a new search for a director immediately.” Melanie Adams, currently the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, will serve as interim director.

After Yao was originally selected for the role, a report from the Washington Post drew increased attention to the individual settlements between MOCA and three former museum employees alleging wrongful termination and retaliatory behavior. In 2021, former museum staffer Joyce Huang filed a lawsuit on behalf of two employees who told her in 2019 that they were being sexually harassed by a male supervisor and a male custodian on and off the clock. Huang allegedly brought her concerns to MOCA’s Human Resources department and claims she was subsequently terminated without warning on the basis that she “lacked professionalism and productivity and had poor judgment,” causing her to believe that she was fired in retaliation for voicing her concerns. The two male staffers who were accused of harassment, Joseph Duong and Erwin Geronimo, retained their positions; Geronimo is still employed at the museum today.

Yao maintains that Huang was dismissed due to “severe budget pressures,” continuing to deny all allegations of retaliatory behavior. Two other employees, Grayson Chin and Justin Onne, also reportedly filed suits against Yao and MOCA for wrongful termination that reached settlements as well — Onne reportedly agreed to a $55,000 payout.

Yao’s leadership at MOCA came into question in 2018 when she accepted a $35M “community give-back fund” from then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration on behalf of the museum in exchange for support of expanding a mega-jail in the Chinatown neighborhood to facilitate de Blasio’s plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail.

Protestors with the Chinatown Art Brigade and Youth Against Displacement (YAD) have been picketing the museum every week since mid-2020 in protest of Yao’s decision to sell out the community as well as her connection to MOCA board chair and luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu, who reportedly had a hand in the closure of the beloved historic dim-sum restaurant Jing Fong.

“[Yao] taught us through example what a 21st-century racist looks like in the most progressive city in the country: You can be a person of color and still look down and sell out your community, climb up the ladder of racist systems while stomping out your own people, provide tokenized cover for anti-Asian discrimination and simultaneously claim that Chinese Americans are making progress,” members of YAD wrote in an opinion published by Hyperallergic. Yao’s last day at MOCA was May 31.

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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