Sponsored Project

Birth of an American Museum

Kenneth Eng
Kenneth Eng, Bryan Sarkinen, Lucie McCormick

After years of financial insecurity, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) embarks on the arduous journey of purchasing their building and trying to become the first Asian American Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) in NYC. With their lease running out at the end of 2021, they have been working vigorously to secure their space and protect Chinese American stories – the absence of a people from the historic landscape is a Civil Rights issue, and in U.S. history the Chinese American narrative is one that’s severely underrepresented. Now, after 5 years of applying for grants, they find themselves in the right place at the wrong time. Amidst their fundraising efforts and appeals to the city, obstacle after obstacle roll into MOCA’s path: a five-alarm fire in Manhattan severely damages their archives, Mayor DeBlasio's jail plan creates friction in the Chinatown community, and xenophobia and business closures caused by Covid-19 impact the broader Asian community in Chinatown.

Through all these trials, we follow Nancy Yao Maasbach, MOCA’s president and a fiery, motherly Chinese American woman from Queens, as she navigates local politics, archive recovery efforts, and Covid-19’s impact on the community. When Nancy became Executive Director of MOCA in 2014, alongside co-chair Jonathan Chu, the board began seeking a permanent home for MOCA, and working towards becoming a recognized CIG –– to do this, they must first own their building. Becoming a CIG would open the doors to a pool of funds accessible only to other recognized CIGs, and provide the museum with sustainability. Currently the thousands of unrecognized arts and cultural institutions in the city vie for only about 20 percent of the city’s funding, and there is no CIG in New York with a focus on Asian American heritage and culture.

After 5 years of applying for grants, NYC has earmarked $38 million by the Department of Cultural Affairs to aid in the purchase of their building. These funds, however, line up with the Mayor’s jail plan, and many community members question whether MOCA is complicit in the plan to build a jail, and accuse them of aiding in the incarceration of black and brown people. Alongside these community concerns, things are looking bleak when MOCA’s fundraising deadline passes and they’ve fallen short of their $1 million goal. Then shortly after, just days before the lunar new year, a fire ravages MOCA’s archives, comprising over 85,000 historic artifacts and documents, just down the street from the museum. Then just a few weeks later, Covid-19 arrives in the United States, and with it a fresh wave of xenophobia. Amidst dealing with their lives being upended by the pandemic, the tragic death of George Floyd brings into focus the systemic racism that persists, and Nancy and the board realize MOCA must adjust as history unfolds and not remain neutral. Contending with a ticking clock, the fire, Covid-19, and persisting issues within the Chinatown community, MOCA reckons with what it means to be a museum in the 21st Century.

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