Citing the Museum of Chinese in America’s “complicity” with mass incarceration and the gentrification of Chinatown, artists Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem have requested their works be withdrawn from its collection and an upcoming exhibition.
In a letter to MOCA’s leadership sent today, July 12, Chin and Liem asked to remove their work from the exhibition Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism. The show is scheduled to open on Thursday, July 15, timed with MOCA’s reopening to the public after a more than a year-long closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The artists’ withdrawn photo series, Documenting Persistence in Oakland’s Chinatown, depicts the Oakland Chinatown communities’ expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
“We believe MOCA’s complicity with mass incarceration — which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people — and the gentrification of Chinatown undermines its aforementioned purpose,” the two artists wrote in their letter to MOCA. “It is contrary to the expressions of solidarity between the Asian American and Black communities against police violence and gentrification highlighted in our work.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, MOCA’s president Nancy Yao Maasbach responded: “MOCA has always been opponents of jail construction in Chinatown which we have made public, so it is unfortunate that the decision by these two artists to back out of MOCA’s new exhibit RESPONSES: Asian Americans Resisting the Tides of Racism has been guided by misinformation.”
“MOCA committed its energies to produce an exhibit that would help provide space for AAPIs to share stories, share voice, and share art around this very difficult time,” Yao Maasbac added.” We are thrilled at what this exhibit will mean for AAPIs and for all who will see it as this critical moment in history.”
The two Bay Area artists decried MOCA’s acceptance of $35 million in funding as part of NYC’s jail expansion plan. The money would help build a permanent home and performing arts space for the institution, which suffered a fire in 2020 that devastated its archive. The move has been fervently criticized by local activists and artist groups like Godzilla and Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB). In March, the art collective Godzilla withdrew from a retrospective of its work at MOCA, causing the museum to cancel the exhibition.
In their letter, Chin and Liem also addressed MOCA’s Co-Chair Jonathan Chu’s “role in the gentrification of Chinatown,” which includes closing two unionized restaurants in Chinatown, Silver Palace and Jing Fong. The artists requested that the museum removes any content related to their work from its galleries, website, and social media platforms, unless it meets their demands: Returning the $35 million to the city and removing Jonathan Chu from its board of directors.
Read Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem’s letter to MOCA, reproduced in full below.
July 11, 2021
Museum of Chinese in America
Attn: Herb Tam
215 Centre Street
New York, NY 10013
Dear MOCA Board and Staff,
We would like to thank you again for selecting our work in your upcoming exhibition, Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism. We have long held respect for MOCA’s mission of celebrating and presenting the experience of Chinese people in America. To our great disappointment, we learned of the museum’s acceptance of a $35 million concession from the city to build a new jail in the neighborhood. We also learned of MOCA Board of Director Co-Chair Jonathan Chu’s role in the gentrification of Chinatown, which includes closing the two first and only unionized restaurants in Chinatown, Silver Palace and more recently Jing Fong. Because of this, we have no choice but to withdraw our permission for MOCA’s use of our work in any capacity, including at the upcoming Responses the exhibition and accompanying programs on July 13, 14 and beyond, the One World Collection, and on MOCA’s social media and website. This includes removing any existing posts of or related to our work from MOCA’s site and social media accounts.
We believe MOCA’s complicity with mass incarceration—which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people—and the gentrification of Chinatown undermines its aforementioned purpose. It is contrary to the expressions of solidarity between the Asian American and Black communities against police violence and gentrification highlighted in our work. It would be dishonest of MOCA to present these images for a grand reopening event while also condoning the building of a new jail in the heart of Chinatown through the acceptance of the $35 million.
In researching these matters further, we also found MOCA’s lack of transparency and dialogue with Godzilla, Chinatown Art Brigade and the greater community, in regards to the concerns described above undermines the museum’s stated purpose to provide a platform for open dialogue.
We sincerely hope that the museum will reevaluate its position and take effective steps to support the community it calls home and the movements upon which it is built. We would wholeheartedly support decisions by the museum to return to being stewards of reclaiming, preserving and presenting the community’s cultural heritage, grassroots struggles and history, return the $35 million concession and remove Jonathan Chu from the Board of Directors. No matter what neighborhood it might be, we cannot support new museum buildings if they come with a new jail, nor a Chinatown where workers are deprived of their livelihoods for the sake of property development. If MOCA takes decisive steps towards these actions, we would consider granting permission in the future—but for now, we cannot, in good conscience, allow the use of our work in any instance.