Context is Everything in the Rabbit’s New Year

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art Must Do Better

On November 28, 2022, I was visited in my studio by a member of the curatorial team from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), during which I showed them a proposal for an artwork installation celebrating the Lunar New Year as a Chinese American. I explained the significance of displaying art with a strong cultural element during a time when anti-AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) violence and hate crimes remain at an all-time high. 

The CMCA curator insisted on assigning me a particular wall: it was small and faced the courtyard, and it would be illuminated in the evenings, presumably giving it great night-time visibility. This wall did not match the proportions for the artwork I had proposed, and in addition to the fact that the museum is closed by 5:00 p.m. all winter, I thought their insistence was strange. Having previously visited the CMCA, I remembered that this was the wall near what many visitors consider to be the “back” of the museum: near the Art Lab classroom area, the offices, the staff-only areas, and abutting the public bathrooms.

The floor plan they sent to me after my visit confirmed that the CMCA felt that the most ideal location for my work was the wall abutting the public bathrooms.

Colored People Only

White-led businesses and institutions in the United States have a long history of treating Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color as inferior. Undesirable locations were reserved for “colored people only” and even after the signage was removed, the practice remained.

In February 2022, an Asian TikToker posted a viral video about being seated by the bathrooms in an otherwise mostly-empty restaurant. Even when many other spaces are available, BIPOC are often assigned to spaces where they are less likely to be visible, more subject to unpleasant smells or activities, and more likely to feel as if they are an inconvenience to the establishment. 

My community has been subjected to this for generations. We often talk about it, but are afraid to speak up, risk putting a spotlight on ourselves, and risk being antagonized for simply asking for equal treatment. So we sacrificed our happiness and comfort for the comfort of white people and white businesses. We made ourselves invisible and told ourselves to be grateful that we were even given a seat at the table.

This is not the first time that an arts institution has insisted that the “best” spot available for my artwork is next to the public bathrooms, or in the most inconvenient areas where viewing the work was uncomfortable–both of which would have been true with the CMCA’s intended placement. The CMCA further informed me that they had already decided on and agreed to other locations for some of the other artists, thus justifying their decision that the “best” location to celebrate my culture was at the end of a hallway where it would be seen last, if at all, by patrons going to the bathroom, or–perhaps, as the CMCA implied–by visitors going to the ArtLab, or employees who are passing through the area to get to their destination.

After I refused the location and stated my reasons, I was sent a new floor plan that included a new wall–the current wall on which the artwork hangs. This wall was not disclosed to me in the previous floor plan.

Floor plan with the initial area assigned to me, which the CMCA circled in red.

Subsequent floor plan from the CMCA with the new wall that was previously not disclosed, marked in red by the CMCA.

My installation now includes a replica of the floor plan sent to me from the CMCA, with the toilets of the public bathroom set in clear vinyl against a section of gold-painted wall, highlighting the curatorial decision of the CMCA.

This section of artwork, as well as the banners, have not been approved by the CMCA and have been installed here without their express permission. I am including this section as a testament to the fact that even when members of my community and I are celebrating important cultural traditions, here in the United States–and right here in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art–the shadow of white supremacy still hangs over us. I only hope that one day, this will fall.

Context Is Everything

Historical context matters. Cultural context matters. Social context matters.

The CMCA has the privilege to decide who gets to be seen and how. What were they hoping to say to the community of Chinese and Asian Americans in Maine? That the best place to celebrate our culture is in the back, by the public bathrooms, and at night when no one is around to see us? That we should remain comfortably out of the way, but visible enough that the CMCA could still consider itself inclusive and diverse?

Why was the new wall not disclosed to me in the initial floor plan? Why did I feel like the curator was trying to sell me on that location during my studio visit? When I pressed them to ensure that changing my location would not result in a swap-out (where they would replace one BIPOC artist for another in that spot), why would they not confirm that this would not be done?

I am not here to say that the CMCA or the curator was intentionally doing harm to me or to my community. I do not need or want an apology for harmful and culturally insensitive curatorial decisions that disregard our very histories. I am demanding reflection and institutional change. This is not simply about art institutions’ “historical predilection for white, male artists,” as the CMCA itself noted, but this is also about present-day messaging and meaning–in short, context.

Institutions like the CMCA have a responsibility to the artists upon whom they rely for exhibition material, and to the communities whom they serve. They must acknowledge the histories in which they operate. While the CMCA stated that “This space is not for BIPOC artists only,” they have thoroughly failed to account for how, as an institution, they can be complicit in upholding white supremacy and are able to perpetuate harm through curatorial decisions.

A white curatorial team, representing an elite institution, assigning a white artist to an undesirable location does not hold the same weight as it does when they assign it to a BIPOC artist, especially when the artwork is intended to celebrate their culture–their humanity–that has been marginalized and sent to the back for generations here in the US. This cannot be ignored, and they must do better.

Chinese Couplets

The two banners for this installation with Chinese text, from left to right, read as follows:

“Take Down White Supremacy”
In Cantonese, this is pronounced “Daa2 dao2 baak6 ji3 seung6 jyu2 yi6”

“Institutional Equality for People of Color”
In Cantonese, this is pronounced “Yau5 sik1 yan4 jai3 dou6 ping4 dang2”

*The numbers are notations for Cantonese tones of pronunciation.

The banners reference traditional Chinese couplets that typically consist of cleverly written poetry or aspirations for the new year. My hope is that self-reflection and tangible change will take place in institutions like the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

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