By Rebecca Beyer
On January 23, 2020, the eve of Lunar New Year’s Eve, Nancy Yao Maasbach ’99, president of the Museum of Chinese in America, moderated a discussion with Pocket Chinese Almanac authors Ken Smith and Joanna C. Lee about the year ahead. It would be the Year of the Rat, and Smith and Lee made a dire prediction for the nearly 200 people in attendance that night.
“They said, ‘Just so you know, it’s going to be the worst year you can imagine,’” Maasbach remembers, adding that everyone laughed at the fortune telling. But over dinner with the authors later, just as Maasbach was asking the pair how bad things could really get, her cell phone rang: the Chinatown building that housed the archives of the museum’s more than 85,000-item collection was on fire.
Maasbach paid the check, leapt from her seat, and ran three blocks to 70 Mulberry Street, where a five-alarm fire was raging. She and members of her team stood for hours watching firefighters work to contain the blaze. At about 3 a.m., she returned to her home near Stamford, Connecticut, to shower. When she came back at 7 a.m., the water hoses were still going. Maasbach checked into a hotel and stayed for four days to monitor the beginning of a months-long cleanup process.
“I’ve never been more upset,” she says of watching the potential devastation of a collection that began more than 40 years ago, when the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) was founded as a community-based organization.
Not two months later, a global pandemic shut down New York City and much of the rest of the world.
Even before the fire, the COVID-19 outbreak, and the rising xenophobia against Chinese Americans that the pandemic prompted, Maasbach says, serving as president of MOCA was the hardest job she’d ever had. In December 2019, the museum had just $50,000 in its bank account (the organization’s rent was $55,000 a month). During her tenure, which began in 2015 without a sustainable business model, the museum had missed payroll twice, and Maasbach herself went six months without being paid. Nevertheless, in September 2019, Condé Nast Traveler named MOCA one of the best museums in New York City, noting its “thorough look at an important group of Americans that isn’t always at the forefront of national conversation.”
“We were doing a lot with very little,” says Maasbach.
Today, the museum has a little more. In October, the Ford Foundation awarded the organization a $3 million grant and designated MOCA one of 20 of “America’s Cultural Treasures.” Led by Ford in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and several other foundations, the initiative was created to underscore the importance of nonprofit organizations in building civil society, with an emphasis on specifically historically underfunded Black, Latinx, Asian American, and indigenous arts organizations. And, in what Maasbach calls “nothing more than a miracle,” the MOCA team was able to recover 95% of the museum’s collection after the fire and water damage (in part because the winter’s cold temperatures prevented mold growth).
“You can’t make up this story,” Maasbach says.
Taking the helm at MOCA was a homecoming of sorts for Maasbach, who grew up in Flushing, Queens. Her mother attended English and typing classes on a weekly basis at the Chinatown Manpower Project, based at 70 Mulberry Street; Maasbach remembers the wonder she experienced at seeing exhibits in the building “that looked like me.” Today, Flushing is a predominantly Asian American neighborhood, but, when Maasbach was growing up, she was the only Chinese American in her elementary school class. She can still recall the anti-Asian taunts she endured.
“There was one other [Asian American] boy in my grade, and everyone thought he and I should get married,” she remembers.
Maasbach’s father worked as an accountant for Pan American World Airways, and, because the family flew for free, they spent summers with relatives in Hong Kong and Taiwan. After graduating from Hunter College High School, Maasbach attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she studied diplomacy and world affairs.
In 1994, degree in hand, she returned home to help her family, who had moved into a 700-square-foot apartment after her father lost his job when Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991. Looking through the New York Times job listings, she circled an ad for a “research associate, China” at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She interviewed—wearing her mom’s suit—and got the position, which included helping write U.S. policy briefs and traveling with former U.S. cabinet secretaries to China, trips that included a meeting with China’s then-Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
“Talk about things that change your life,” she says.
After three years, Maasbach planned to go back to school for policy or international relations, but her brief interactions with then-Yale School of Management dean Jeffrey E. Garten, a CFR member, led her to apply to SOM as well.
“I had already put down my deposit” at another school, she remembers. But the day she visited Yale—her first trip to Connecticut—convinced her to attend SOM. “I’ve never felt as much conviction,” she says.
At Yale SOM, she focused on corporate finance and East Asian studies and especially enjoyed courses on governance with Ira M. Millstein, operations with Arthur J. Swersey, and strategic management with Douglas W. Rae. She also served as a teaching assistant at Yale College and for an SOM class on East Asia and the world economy, relishing the chance to put what she had seen in practice to the test in the classroom.
“I felt like I was in the right place at the right time,” she says. “I definitely had much more confidence in what I knew and the context in which I saw it.”
After graduation, Maasbach was recruited to the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and stayed there for six years before joining the management team at an equity research firm. She then returned to her nonprofit roots, first at CFR and next as executive director of Yale-China, an organization that forges U.S.-China relationships through rigorous partnership programs in education, health, and the arts.
In that role, she reconnected with MOCA. The museum had just moved into a new space at 215 Centre Street designed by Yale-trained architect Maya Lin and hosted an exhibit celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Yale-China Teaching Program. In 2014, when MOCA was looking for a leadership change, it reached out to Maasbach. Her main task was finding a permanent home for the organization.
After meeting with stakeholders, Maasbach added three goals of her own: to increase “earned” revenue (as opposed to donor contributions); strengthen the organization’s board; and better articulate the museum’s mission and work.
“A lot of people come in and want to see a Ming vase,” she says. “I would consistently need to reframe the experience for visitors: we’re a museum about the American narrative and the Chinese American stories that feed into that narrative. We’re not about looking at pretty porcelain.”
Before the devastating events of last year, Maasbach was making progress on her priorities. She had increased membership by 600%, implemented the Tessitura customer relationship management system, added daily tours of Chinatown, increased programming by 300%, recorded oral histories, digitized archives, and begun offering workshops on skills such as preserving photos. And, even amidst the pandemic, she was able to lead the team in setting up a temporary conservation workshop space—designed by another Yale-trained architect, former Yale-China Board member Ming Thompson of Atelier Cho Thompson.
Maasbach was also able to take the significant step forward toward securing a permanent home for the museum: in December, the museum signed a contract to buy the Centre Street building, which would make the museum a national anchor for the Chinese American narrative. Maya Lin will again help bring the space to life; famed museum design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which recently worked on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has also joined as a partner.
In these difficult times, Maasbach says MOCA’s mission—to help redefine and broaden the American narrative through the stories of Chinese Americans throughout the country—is even more critical.
MOCA gives “confidence to people who don’t understand the value of who they are,” she says.
Financial support from funders such as the Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, whom she says “stepped up and recognized the role of nonprofit organizations and arts and cultural institutions in helping build resilient and responsive civil societies,” has been “incredible.”
“In hindsight, it’s easy to say the collection telling the journey of 200 years is so important,” she says. “But when you’re struggling, when you can’t pay rent, when you don’t get paid, the world is telling you that you don’t matter. It’s been such a remarkable outpouring of support and accolades.”