The Museum of Chinese in America should not support mass incarceration

MOCA should return funds accepted from the de Blasio administration and apologize to those protesting.


Alex Tran

The Museum of Chinese in America located at 215 Centre St, was forced into closure after a massive fire. Following the closure, MOCA accepted $35 million in funds from the city as an agreement to De Blasio’s plan to build four borough-based jails, supporting mass incarceration. (Staff Photo by Alex Tran)

Mariana Trimble, Contributing Writer

Protests against the Museum of Chinese in America have ensued since the museum reopened after being hit by both the pandemic and a fire. On its website, MOCA says it aims to “make meaningful connections between the past and present, the global and the local, themselves and others.” The museum’s history of operation and its current president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, have continually done the opposite.

Following its forced closure, MOCA accepted $35 million in funds from New York City as part of an agreement with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build four borough-based jails. The plan would go toward expanding the Manhattan Detention Complex, a decision that the Lower Manhattan Community Board voted against over concerns of gentrifying Chinatown. In a statement to Hyperallergic, Maasbach said that MOCA has “been opponents of the jail construction in Chinatown,” but public records prove that the funds received from the city are tied to the jail expansion program. To end their complicity in America’s system of mass incarceration, the museum should return these funds immediately. 

The criticism against Maasbach’s leadership only increased after she accused protesters against the museum of being paid by City Council candidate Christopher Marte, who publicly opposed the jail expansion plan. Protesters said Maasbach’s accusation was ageist, as it was directed at the senior citizens that disagreed with the acceptance of these funds. Marte says he did not pay any of the protesters. Maasbach’s perceived lack of understanding only adds to the community members’ list of grievances. She must stop demonizing the senior citizens and activists holding MOCA accountable. 

The activists believe that despite MOCA’s financial hardships, accepting funds tied to the jail expansion project was a mistake and contradictory of its broader message. Its representation of the Asian American experience falls short when the functions of the museum cause harm to the very community it tries to represent. 

The protesters have not been greeted well by MOCA leadership. On top of the allegedly ageist comments, Maasbach has treated the protester’s calls for her removal by yelling at and harassing them.The museum’s venue manager, Jeffrey Reynolds, has also clashed with the crowd, allegedly pushing one of the protesters outside of the museum. MOCA’s leadership should have taken initiative and apologized. However, they have yet to address the incident.

With all of the frustration targeted towards MOCA, there have been small victories for the community members calling for change. Artists Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem asked for the removal of their artworks in a letter to the board. They reference the hypocrisy of MOCA’s mission statement, writing, “We believe MOCA’s complicity with mass incarceration — which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people — and the gentrification of Chinatown undermines its aforementioned purpose.” With pressure mounting from contributing artists, MOCA’s leadership should consider the validity of the criticism aimed towards them.

Maybe there is hope for the Chinatown community. Activists have rallied in front of the museum to disturb its functions. They aim to make all those who enter the museum aware of the board’s actions and to encourage others to join their cause. The members of the Chinatown community have been perpetually ignored by the board. These activist voices must be heard and respected. MOCA must redistribute the funds to Chinatown and those harmed by our carceral state.

Contact Mariana Trimble at [email protected].