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  • Mar 17, 2021

Museum Cancels Show after Artists Withdraw Over Chinatown Jail

An exterior view of the Museum of Chinese in America, New York. Image via Wikipedia.

Tension between members of the collective Godzilla: Asian American Artists Network and New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) due to the museum’s alleged support for the city’s construction of a jail in Chinatown has led to MOCA’s cancellation of an upcoming show for Godzilla on March 9, after 19 members of the collective withdrew their participation on March 5.

In their letter to MOCA, 19 of the 33 Godzilla members participating in the show, “Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990–2001,”originally slated for May 13–September 12, voiced their opposition to entrusting their activist legacy “to a cultural institution whose leadership ignores, and even seeks to silence, critical voices from its community,” adding that MOCA’s acceptance of the city’s USD 35 million jail plan concession in 2019 amounts to “supporting the system of mass incarceration.” Godzilla members also criticized MOCA’s inconsistency in its position despite a January 28 statement in which the museum noted that “[it] is and has always been unalterably opposed to building a jail in Chinatown.” 

In a statement shared with ArtAsiaPacific on March 16, MOCA president Nancy Yao Maasbach reiterated the museum’s opposition to New York City's plan for the neighborhood and stressed that MOCA’s responsibility lies with “secur[ing] future funding so that generations to come will have a place to congregate,” adding that “turning down all City funding for the Museum because we disagree with the City’s approach to incarceration will only hurt Chinatown and diminish the profile of the Chinese American journeys.” In his March 9 letter to Godzilla members about the show’s cancellation, MOCA’s director of exhibitions, Herb Tam, acknowledged “the right of artists to withdraw their participation from projects if they do not feel morally aligned with the presenting institution,” while adding that MOCA has “begun documenting this moment as an important part of the history of activism in Chinatown.”

Part of a USD 8.7 billion plan to separate New York’s jail complex on Rikers Island into four borough-based locations, the proposal for a 29-story Manhattan Detention Center in Chinatown was announced in August 2018. On September 27, 2018, the city council hosted a meeting with Chinatown’s tenants, among them Maasbach, to address community opposition. A borough-based jail plan agreement was issued by the mayor’s office on October 18, 2019, promising USD 35 million for MOCA’s permanent venue and new performing arts space at 215 Centre Street, as part of the city’s more than USD 137 million in “separate investments in the local neighborhoods to meet needs.” The city issued USD 5 million to MOCA in 2020, with another USD 15 million planned for each financial years of 2021 and 2022.

The Godzilla exhibition was meant to examine the collective’s legacy with artworks, original artifacts, and documentary archives. Founded in 1990 by New York-based creatives Margo Machida, Bing Lee, and Ken Chu, Godzilla hosted over 200 members at its peak. The group disbanded in 2001. Signatories to the open letter include Alexandra Chang, Allan deSouza, Byron Kim, Paul Pfeiffer, and Lynne Yamamoto.

Celina Lei is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific

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