Museum expansion project creates problems in Chinatown

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan’s Chinatown recently unveiled plans for a new $118 million building designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. Due to open in 2025, the new facility will see the museum purchase its currently leased location at 215 Center Street and grow from 12,000 square feet to over 68,000 square feet, spanning nine floors with a conference room of two floors, a center for research and genealogy, galleries, a theater and two outdoor gardens.

“Amid the nationwide waves of anti-China American ignorance and strained U.S.-China relations, there has perhaps not been a more critical time…for MOCA to serve as a turning point for this important but tragically overlooked history of the Chinese diaspora in the United States,” says museum president Nancy Yao Maasbach.

The expanded facilities will also “provide Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods with a place where local groups can collaborate and showcase works, share multi-generational experiences, and create new works of art,” according to a museum spokesperson.

However, several grassroots organizations in Chinatown have said that MOCA, under its current leadership, does not represent the interests of the community and poses a risk to the preservation of its history. For more than a year, groups of residents, artists, activists and labor rights groups have called for a boycott of the museum, citing its role in displacing the community and its unwillingness to engage openly with local residents.

The MOCA dispute stems primarily from Maasbach’s alleged request for and acceptance of $35 million from the city as part of a contentious city plan to close the Rikers Island prisons and erect four new prisons based on the arrondissement. The city’s plan is to replace the Manhattan detention complex with a single ‘skyscraper prison’ – a move the Lower Manhattan Community Board voted against, citing concerns that the expansion will create an unsafe environment for neighborhood residents and businesses, will displace them and perpetuate the systems. of mass incarceration.

When MOCA reopened in July 2021 after a 16-month pandemic closure, protesters gathered outside to demand that the museum refuse city funding. Accepting the funds, they said, would be compliance with the district-based prison plan and a betrayal of the community. In response, MOCA released a statement saying it had been involved in a grant application process with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) since 2015 to raise the funds needed to secure permanent housing. . Museum officials have denied any involvement in the city’s jail plan, calling the allegations “absurd” and “driven by a barrage of misinformation.”

According to MOCA, between 2016 and 2019, the institution received more than $9.3 million from the DCLA. Then, in 2021, he received another $31 million from the city. MOCA has consistently refuted claims that any funding it has received is tied to city jail expansion plans. However, the $31 million grant — intended for the institution’s acquisition and expansion of 215 Center Street — is listed as one of the points of agreement for the prison plan based on the borough of the city.

A spokesperson for the museum said “the funds are for capital only and [are] addressed to the seller” of 215, rue Centre. It has also been a point of contention, as community members say that awarding funds for investments in “cultural and community institutions” to the building’s current owner will further gentrify the neighborhood rather than help. existing residents and businesses that have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic. .

Protesters also voiced opposition to joining MOCA’s board of directors, particularly its co-chairman Jonathan Chu, a prominent real estate mogul who has come under fire for allegedly forcing dim sum restaurant Jing Fong, old several decades, to close and move to a much smaller space.

Fading relationships

Criticism of MOCA’s leadership highlights a stark contrast between the institution’s founding mission to preserve Manhattan’s Chinatown and the ripple effects of its actions on the community as it seeks to become a globally recognized institution. . The protests that began in July 2021 were the most visible, but they weren’t the first. When the community initiatives associated with the jail plan were announced in October 2019, leaders of local activist groups opposed to the mayor’s plan called on MOCA to publicly express its acceptance of the funds. Several artists, including Arlan Huang, Siyan Wong, Alvin Tsang and Tomie Arai have written open letters to Maasbach, which have been published by community advocacy group Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC). Other community
The organizations asked museum board members to engage with community groups.

MOCA has also been criticized by former supporters. In March 2021, the museum canceled an exhibition by Asian American art collective Godzilla (formed in 1990) after 19 of the group’s members withdrew from the exhibition, citing the museum’s adherence to the prison plan and its lack of transparency. “They are artists in their twilight years, and their dream was to come back to the museum they remembered and say, ‘At this point in my career, I want to be with my peers, young and old, and I want I have pieces on this wall to mark this moment in my career,” says Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident. “Then saying, ‘I won’t participate,’ was a huge sacrifice.”

In an open letter to the board in October 2021, former MOCA staff said that “the museum’s disengagement from the local community is a lack of vision and understanding of the true promise of MOCA”. They added, “There are stakeholders protesting outside your door, artists pulling out of scheduled shows, people wondering where you stand on key issues impacting Chinatown.”

MOCA’s expansion plans confirm that it will go ahead with its intended use of city funds despite community objections. The controversy parallels broader questions about who determines the future of Manhattan’s Chinatown, as city policies and gentrification by investors, developers and art galleries threaten to displace its multigenerational immigrant and working-class populations. .

The neighborhood has a long history of artist collectives and community organizations fighting to preserve its character. Lee notes the disparity between outside investors and community groups such as Welcome to Chinatown, the WOW Project and Think! Chinatown that define and sustain the community. “They go to places of worship here, belong to nonprofits, donate to local charities [and] they helped small businesses through tough times,” he says.

As MOCA launches its expansion, the city moves forward with plans to build the world’s tallest jail at 124-125 White Street, despite opposition from local residents. Ten protesters were arrested on April 13 at the site, where fencing preparations began to demolish the existing prison so the larger one could be built. Protesters criticized Mayor Eric Adams for pushing ahead with the project despite speaking out against it during his election campaign.

Public art in danger

In addition to the risk of environmental and economic damage to the neighborhood, the demolition of the Manhattan detention complex threatens the artwork on the building’s facade by sculptor Kit-Yin Snyder and muralist Richard Haas. The works, including two sculptural friezes and a seven-panel mural depicting the history of immigration on the Lower East Side, were commissioned through New York’s Percent for Art program.

According to the DCLA, the works will be removed and placed in storage for the next six months, with the exception of the Haas mural Immigration to the Lower East Side (1988), which is executed directly on the exterior of the installation. This work, a DCLA spokesperson said, was documented using high-definition scanning and will eventually be recreated in the new prison building. at Snyder Straight the pavement design will be replicated and applied to a temporary wall near an adjacent courthouse.

According to the DCLA, the plans for the works were developed in consultation with conservators, artists and community members. But many locals are skeptical, as some parts have been deteriorating for years. For example, Snyder’s causeway design on part of a pedestrian plaza was compromised when Department of Corrections employees began using it as a parking area.

“You have to wonder, are artists whose work is located in more prominent places other than minority and marginalized neighborhoods treated the same?” said Lee. “The answer is no, they are not.”

James C. Tibbs