Artist says Rockland museum’s placement of her Lunar New Year work was racially insensitive

Evelyn Wong, one of 35 artists showing work in the biennial at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, in a printmaking room at Maine College of Art, where she teaches. She says that the CMCA gave her too little space to display her installation piece related to the Lunar New Year. Although the museum is offering a new location, she is upset with how the situation has been handled. Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

A Portland artist featured in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s 2023 biennial is protesting the exhibit over what she considers racially and culturally insensitive decisions by the Rockland museum’s curators.

Evelyn Wong proposed an installation for the biennial to celebrate the new moon, something she felt strongly about, given increased cases of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate crimes in recent years.

Yet instead of prominent placement in the biennial, Wong said she was initially offered space on a small wall that did not match the proportions of her work and is located at the back of the museum near the public bathrooms.

Museum officials, who have since offered Wong another place to display her work, say they do not consider the wall a lesser space and that there was no malicious intent behind their decision.

“This is not the first time that an art institution has insisted that the ‘best’ place available for my artwork is next to the public bathrooms, or in the most inconvenient areas where viewing the work was uncomfortable,” Wong wrote in a long post on her website detailing her experience.

Wong, 37, grew up in South Carolina to Chinese immigrant parents. She moved to Maine in 2017 to study at the Maine College of Art & Design, where she is now an adjunct faculty member. She also has a studio at Space in Portland.

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After expressing concerns to CMCA about the initial placement of their installation, staff suggested a different location, one that had not been offered to them before and that was not on the floor plan they sent them.

Wong agreed to install her work there, but she was still upset and decided at the last minute to include a replica of the museum’s countryside as a protest, “with the public bathroom toilets set in clear vinyl against a section of gold-painted wall, mark the curatorial decision of the CMCA.”

“My first thought was that I could just boycott the show; and I seriously thought about doing that,” Wong said Monday. “But the more I thought about it, if I don’t speak out, someone else like me could be subjected to this in the future.

Portland artist Evelyn Wong’s installation commemorating the Lunar New Year hangs at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland as part of the museum’s 2023 biennial. Wong is protesting the exhibit over what she sees as racial and culturally insensitive practices by curators there. Photo by Evelyn Wong

‘Change must happen’

“Change has to happen. Without pressure, it often doesn’t happen.”

Tim Peterson, executive director and chief curator of the Rockland museum, said he respects Wong’s feelings but insisted there was no “conscious or unconscious bias” involved in choosing the initial location for her work.

“We had suggested this location because of its proximity to our ArtLab, and she had suggested classes during the biennial,” Peterson said, adding that the hallway is lit even when the museum is closed, providing additional visibility. “When she let us know that she thought this was a smaller space that mirrored other experiences she had, it prompted us to rethink things. In everything we do, we respond to artists, so we offer an alternative site.

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Peterson also said the reason the alternate site didn’t appear on the first floor plan shared with Wong is because it’s a temporary wall.

He does not see the first location as undesirable. It has been used in the past as an active exhibition space, often for projects involving social or cultural issues, as it can be seen from the courtyard and is illuminated 24 hours a day.

Peterson said he was disappointed he didn’t have a chance to speak directly with Wong and was truly sorry she felt disrespected as an artist of color.

“We are working on a better museum. That will be the goal of my directorship every day,” he said.

Peterson said that in the two years since he has been director, there have been 10 solo exhibitions at the CMCA and seven of the artists were non-white.

“There is more to achieve, but I feel that we are actively doing this work,” he said.


The 2023 biennial at the CMCA opened with a reception on Saturday and will be on display until May 7. Two jury members – Misa Jeffereis, assistant curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and Sarah Montross, senior curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts – chose the 35 artists from more than 400 submissions. Montross was previously a post-doctoral curator at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick.

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Once the artists were selected, Peterson and curatorial associate Rachel Romanski worked with each to decide which specific work would be shown and where in the museum it would be displayed. Peterson said he hasn’t heard from any of the other artists who have concerns about the placement of their work.

Some artists in the biennial who were contacted about Wong’s experience did not respond or did not want to be quoted in this story.

However, Wong said full representation is important and even if staff didn’t intentionally push an artist of color to the back of the museum, the exact same thing happened.

“The CMCA has the prerogative to decide who can be shown and how,” she wrote on her website. “What were they hoping to say to the Chinese and Asian American community in Maine? That the best place to celebrate our culture is in the back, at the public bathrooms, and at night when no one is there to see us? That we should stay comfortably out of the way, but visible enough that the CMCA could still consider itself inclusive and diverse?

Wong said that even though the museum officials eventually offered her another location, they did not fully acknowledge her concerns and their apology to her felt hollow. That’s why she decided to speak out.

Peterson said he hoped to meet with Wong to better understand her experience. That had not happened on Monday, but he said that the invitation remains open.



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