On the evening of January 23, 2020, a five-alarm fire broke out at 70 Mulberry Street in New York, in a historic building in the city’s Chinatown; it housed 85,000 objects in the collection of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), a small institution located a few blocks away. The blaze posed an existential threat to the institution’s 40-year effort to document and preserve the experiences and achievements of people of Chinese descent in the United States, with photographs, textiles and garments, business signs, and movie posters among the many items endangered.
Members of the museum’s management team were in the neighborhood at the time of the fire. They watched the blaze together for several hours before convening to commiserate at a local bar. The team decided to get back together at 7 the following morning, which marked the Lunar New Year’s Eve, a holiday for which the museum had organized a series of programs.
“We just tried to process it and think clearly about what we needed to do—it was really hard,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, who has served as president of MOCA since 2015. “It’s 40 years of history, 40 years of collecting and—oh my goodness—it’s going up in flames in a five-alarm fire.”
The museum has many passionate supporters, and gained more as news of the fire spread. In the days that followed, Maasbach said there were so many offers of help that they had to set up a separate email account for them. The staff of 13 full-time workers now found themselves immersed in an ongoing process related to the restoration and conservation of a 129-year-old building owned by the city and beloved by the local community. But their first priority, according to Maasbach, was to retrieve the thousands of objects from the building and assess the damage.
“It’s like your child is ill,” she said. “You need to just take care of your child.”
In March, they completed the six-week-long retrieval process and discovered, to Maasbach’s relief, that 95 percent of the holdings had survived, despite some water damage. But then came bad news: the coronavirus lockdown.
The New York City Fire Department at 70 Mulberry Street following the fire.
hoto Bebeto Matthews/Courtesy Associated Press
Founded in 1980 as the New York Chinatown History Project by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen and community activist Charles Lai, MOCA has spent much of its four decades struggling to survive. The museum’s mission is to instill in visitors a deeper understanding of Chinese American history and culture through exhibitions as well as research and educational initiatives. Today, its annual budget is $2.8 million. Subtracting from that hundreds of thousands of dollars in New York rent, that leaves little room for experimentation or expansion in the best of times. Maasbach describes her role leading the museum as “the toughest job I’ve ever had.”
“MOCA has had such a hard time sustaining itself,” she said, acknowledging the “reality of being a small culture museum with a big mission.” Like many leaders of such institutions, she spent much of her time on grant applications—but, she said, was “constantly and consistently denied funding.” With no savings or endowment, she wasn’t sure how it would weather the one-two punch of fire and pandemic.
That’s why, when Maasbach received a call last fall that MOCA would be awarded a $3.1 million grant as part of the Ford Foundation’s America’s Cultural Treasures initiative—$81 million split among 20 institutions across the U.S.—she was brought to tears.
“I don’t think I ever was so emotional in a professional space before, but I’m also not even sure if, on a personal level, I’ve ever had that experience,” she said. “You come from a place where you’re not sure if you matter—and then you’re one of 20 that matter.”
The Museum of Chinese in America inaugurated its new Collections and Research Center, which houses the MOCA Workshop, last fall.
Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America
The establishment of America’s Cultural Treasures was precipitated, in part, by the coronavirus lockdown, which has left many art institutions around the country and throughout the world financially bereft and vulnerable to permanent closure. (A survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums this past June held the grim projection that one-third of American museums could shut down entirely due to the financial hardship they’ve endured in the crisis.) The grants are geared toward arts organizations “led by and serving communities of color that have historically been underfunded,” according to the Ford Foundation’s website. Other grant recipients include the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage; El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum in Harlem; the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan; the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Funding for the national grants was drawn from the Ford Foundation, the Abrams Foundation, the Alice L. Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, arts patrons Tom and Lisa Blumenthal, and philanthropists Barbara and Amos Hostetter. Recipients of a second component of the grant-giving initiative, this one with a regional focus, will be announced in 2021.
“The bottom line is that wealth has been inequitably distributed in the U.S., and that can affect what kinds of individual fundraising campaigns organizations are able to execute,” said Kate Levin, who oversees the Bloomberg Philanthropies arts program, and served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs from 2002 to 2013. “The basic idea behind America’s Cultural Treasures is to take organizations that are excellent, that have a track record of excellence, and capitalize them in a meaningful way.”
Levin added that the initiative is “also a recognition that there has not been equal access to funding for these organizations in the U.S.”
“The bottom line is that wealth has been inequitably distributed in the U.S.”
Larger institutions devoted to specific cultural histories have gained attention in recent years in part through high-profile building projects. In 2016 the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., with an awe-inducing structure from starchitect David Adjaye. But Levin said that MOCA has been a “trailblazer” in telling local social histories through the lens of the everyday objects in its collection. She compared NMAAHC’s curatorial purview and methodologies to those of MOCA.
“This is something we’re still learning to do in the U.S. in the museum context: how you tell local history,” she said. “[This grant will] give MOCA a real financial tether to try and innovate and to get through a fiscal year without constantly scraping the bottom.”
Maasbach called the grant, which the museum received as a lump sum, a “total game changer.” Part of the grant—$100,000—is designated for technical projects, so the museum utilized those funds to revamp its website. The remaining $3 million will support conservation of the objects harmed in the fire and offset in part the museum’s pandemic-related losses. The grant will also enable the museum to expand access to its educational programs digitally, so as to reach a national audience.
And the grant money has allowed museum leadership at last “to think creatively—such a rare, rare space to be in,” Maasbach said. Future plans include programs to support and amplify the work of individual Asian-American artists who might give performances or create works in partnership with the museum.
“I have never felt that a foundation has trusted us as much as in this situation,” Maasbach said. “When you’re in a marginalized community or when you’re the minority in the space, you often feel like you don’t belong there.”
The front reading room of the MOCA Workshop at 3 Howard Street, where visitors view and engage with the museum’s collection.
Jing Zhao/Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America
Recently, she has been thinking that there may be power in numbers. She is seeking to establish and have her museum lead a consortium of 28 other small Chinese American historical museums around the U.S., including the Chinese American Museum Los Angeles, the Chinese Historical Society of New England, and the Hawaii Chinese History Center. Maasbach said that such a partnership, through which the participating organizations could convene on a quarterly basis, would “create this wonderful national repository of shared resources” for exhibitions and other initiatives. The museum previously partnered with those 28 museums for a 2019 exhibition at MOCA titled “Gathering,” which examined the origins of institutions and organizations dedicated to Chinese American history.
The fire, meanwhile, has brought a renewed focus on the collection, currently housed in a space at 3 Howard Street, along with opportunities to bring the past into the present. Last September, Yue Ma, director for collections and research, began using the museum’s holdings as part of a virtual collection management course she taught to students at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was the museum’s first collaborative program with a college, and Ma said that, when health measures permit, she hopes to have conservation students at FIT engage in hands-on work with fire-damaged items.
“It’s a real practical experience that we would like to provide opportunities to students to learn the actual process,” Ma said, adding that after further assessment of the fire damage, the museum will make a determination about the specific allocation of funds from the America’s Cultural Treasures grant.
The fire has already become a part of MOCA’s history, and, as part of a partnership with Google Arts & Culture, the museum opened a virtual exhibition titled “Trial by Fire: The Race to Save 200 Years of Chinese American History” in January, one year after the blaze. The exhibition features news clips, photos, videos pulled from social media, and more records that trace the fire’s impact and the museum’s retrieval and recovery process. At the same time, the museum added images of more than 200 objects from its collection to the platform.
In addition to new programs and other opportunities the America’s Cultural Treasures grant will afford, Maasbach and her team are making a pledge to remember the museum’s past struggles, resist tokenization, and advocate for under-recognized artists and cultural organizations.
“I think our role is now to be responsible—I feel like a chosen one,” she said. “The fear I have is that we forget where we came from, and that’s something we’re holding each other accountable for. You’ve got to work harder to create equity.”
A version of this article appears in the April/May 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Phoenix from the Flames.”