The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan’s Chinatown recently unveiled plans for a new $118m building designed by the artist and architect Maya Lin. Due to open in 2025, the new facility will see the museum buy its currently leased location at 215 Centre Street and expand from 12,000 sq. ft to more than 68,000 sq. ft, spanning nine storeys with a two-storey lecture hall, a centre for research and genealogy, galleries, a theatre and two outdoor gardens.
“Amid national waves of anti-Chinese American ignorance and fraught US-China relations, there has perhaps been no more critical moment...for MOCA to serve as a hub for this important yet tragically overlooked history of the Chinese diaspora in the United States,” says the museum’s president Nancy Yao Maasbach.
The expanded facilities will “also provide Chinatown and the surrounding neighbourhoods with a place for local groups to collaborate and showcase work, share multi-generational experiences and create new works of art”, according to a museum spokesperson.
However, several grassroots organisations in Chinatown have declared that MOCA, under its current leadership, does not represent the community’s interests and poses a risk to the preservation of its history. For more than a year, groups of residents, artists, activists and workers-rights groups have called for a boycott of the museum, citing its role in community displacement and unwillingness to engage openly with local residents.
The dispute surrounding MOCA stems primarily from Maasbach’s alleged request for, and acceptance of, $35m from the city as part of a controversial municipal plan to close the jails on Rikers Island and erect four new borough-based jails. The city’s plan involves replacing the Manhattan Detention Complex with a single “skyscraper jail”—a decision the Lower Manhattan Community Board voted against, citing concerns that the expansion will create a hazardous environment for, and displace, neighbourhood residents and businesses, and perpetuate systems of mass incarceration.
When MOCA reopened in July 2021 after a 16-month pandemic shutdown, protesters rallied outside demanding the museum refuse the city’s funding. Accepting the funds, they said, would constitute compliance with the borough-based jail plan and a betrayal of the community. In response, MOCA issued a statement claiming it had been involved in a grant application process with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) since 2015 to raise the money to secure a permanent home. Museum representatives have denied any involvement with the city’s jail plan, calling the allegations “nonsensical” and “driven by a barrage of misinformation”.
According to MOCA, between 2016 and 2019 the institution was awarded more than $9.3m by the DCLA. Then, in 2021, it received a further $31m from the city. MOCA has consistently refuted claims that any of the financing it has received is related to the city’s jail expansion plans. However, the $31m grant—earmarked for the institution’s acquisition and expansion of 215 Centre Street—is listed as one of the points of agreement for the city’s borough-based jail plan.
A museum spokesperson says “the funds are purely for capital and [are] directed to the seller” of 215 Centre Street. This too has been a point of contention, as community members claim that directing funds intended as investments in “cultural and community institutions” to the current building owner will further gentrify the neighbourhood rather than aiding existing residents and businesses who have struggled financially during the pandemic.
Protesters have also expressed opposition to MOCA’s board membership, specifically its co-chair Jonathan Chu, a prominent real estate mogul who came under fire for allegedly forcing the decades-old dim sum restaurant Jing Fong to close and relocate to a significantly smaller space.
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 recognised institution. The protests that began in July 2021 have been the most visible, but they were not the first. When the community initiatives associated with the jail plan were announced in October 2019, leaders of local activist groups opposing the mayor’s plan called on MOCA to publicly address its acceptance of the funds. Several artists, including Arlan Huang, Siyan Wong, Alvin Tsang and Tomie Arai penned open letters to Maasbach, which were published by the community advocacy group Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC). Other community
organisations called on the museum’s board members to engage with community groups.
MOCA has also faced criticism from former supporters. In March 2021, the museum cancelled an exhibition by the Asian American art collective Godzilla (formed in 1990) after 19 of the group’s members withdrew from the show, citing the museum’s compliance with the jail plan and its lack of transparency. “These are artists in the sunset of their lives, 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 both young and old, and I want my pieces on that wall to mark this time in my career’,” says Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident. “To then say, ‘I’m not going to participate’ was an enormous sacrifice.”
In an open letter to the board of trustees in October 2021, former MOCA staff said the museum’s “disengagement from the local community is a lack of vision and comprehension of MOCA’s true promise”. They added, “There are stakeholders protesting outside your door, artists pulling out of planned shows, people wondering where you stand on key issues that impact Chinatown.”
MOCA’s expansion plans confirm that it will move forward with its intended use of the city funds despite community objections. The controversy parallels broader questions about who determines the future of Manhattan’s Chinatown, as municipal policies and gentrification by investors, developers and art galleries threaten to displace its multigenerational immigrant and working-class populations.
The neighbourhood has a long history of artist collectives and community organisations 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 uphold the community. “They go to houses of worship here, belong to non-profits, donate to local charities [and] they’ve helped small businesses during difficult times,” he says.
While MOCA is kicking off its expansion, the city is moving forward with its plan to build the world’s tallest jail at 124-125 White Street, despite opposition from local residents. Ten protesters were arrested on 13 April at the site, where fencing preparations have begun to demolish the existing jail so that the larger one can be built. Protesters criticised mayor Eric Adams for proceeding with the project despite having spoken out against it during his election campaign.
Public art at risk
In addition to risks of environmental and economic damage to the neighbourhood, the demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex poses a threat to works of art on the façade of the building 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 programme.
According to the DCLA, the works will be removed and put into storage over the next six months, apart from Haas’s mural Immigration on the Lower East Side (1988), which is executed directly onto the facility’s exterior. This work, a DCLA spokesperson says, has been documented using high-definition scanning and will eventually be recreated in the new jail building. Snyder’s Upright pavement design will be reproduced and applied to a temporary wall near an adjacent courthouse.
According to the DCLA, plans for the works have been developed in consultation with conservators, the artists and community members. But many locals are sceptical, as some of the pieces have been left to degrade for years. For instance, Snyder’s pavement design on part of a pedestrian plaza was compromised when Department of Corrections employees started using it as a car parking area.
“You have to ask yourself, are the artists whose work is located in more prominent locations other than minority and marginalised neighbourhoods treated the same way?” Lee says. “The answer is no, they are not.”