Nancy Yao has been named the founding director of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, effective June 5. The new museum was established by Congress in December 2020. Yao brings more than 25 years of experience managing organizations and mission-driven projects to the role.
The Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum advances the understanding of women’s contributions throughout U.S. history that have influenced the making of America. As founding director, Yao will oversee the conception and development of a 21st-century museum, including sourcing a national collection, curating permanent and current exhibitions, and creating educational resources accessible virtually before the physical museum is built in Washington, D.C. The museum currently has a staff of 14 and a federal budget of $2 million; the museum has raised over $55 million.
Since 2015, Yao has served as the president of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Located in New York City, MOCA tells nuanced and unexpected stories and provides a platform for open dialogue and dynamic programs. As president, Yao led a successful sustainability and conservation effort following a five-alarm fire in the museum’s research space salvaging over 98% of MOCA’s collection — the largest collection of Chinese American artifacts and objects in the country. Receiving national attention after the fire, Yao led the team to initiate “MOCA on the Road,” a program to expand the museum’s collection efforts nationally. The program traveled to over 10 U.S. cities to collect objects, build partnerships and share resources and exhibitions. Through partnerships with foundations; local, state and federal agencies; and gifts from individual donors, MOCA raised over $60 million to secure a permanent home for the museum in New York City. The new MOCA is designed by artist and architect Maya Lin in partnership with Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Under Yao’s leadership, MOCA obtained national recognition in 2020 when it was named one of 20 of “America’s Cultural Treasures.”
“For decades, people have waited for this opportunity to shine a brighter light on women both famous and unsung who profoundly changed the world,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch. “Nancy’s proven experience, skill and leadership will be crucial in bringing to life the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and enabling it to creatively tell a more robust and complete story about who we are as a nation.”
Yao brings a wide range of leadership experiences from both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. She is a lecturer on governance of not-for-profit organizations at Yale University’s David Geffen School of Drama. She serves as the board secretary of the Tessitura Network, a not-for-profit organization that provides technology for over 800 global arts and culture organizations, and sits on the McGraw-Hill equity advisory board. Yao served as the chair of the Women and Girls’ Fund in New Haven and also served as the co-chair of Yale University’s 150th anniversary of women at Yale; unfortunately, that event was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Yao has led project-driven work and led teams at MOCA, Yale-China Association, Council on Foreign Relations, Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Center for Financial Research and Analysis. She was an associate producer at CNN International early in her career.
“I am humbled and elated to join the Smithsonian as the founding director of the American Women’s History Museum,” Yao said. “I look forward to partnering with colleagues to leverage the Smithsonian’s magnificent portfolio of museums, educational resources and research—and its incomparable collections. Museums play a critical role at the nexus of scholarship and public access. Creating voice for the stories of American women will take intentional conversations, creative inputs and energetic curation. I am indebted to Lonnie Bunch, Kevin Gover and the Smithsonian leadership, the advisory council of the museum, and interim director Lisa Sasaki and the museum team for all that they have accomplished to date.”
Congress passed legislation in December 2020 establishing the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. Since then, the Smithsonian has named a 25-member advisory council and has identified two optimal sites for the museum to be located, which are currently pending congressional approval. Ahead of the construction of the brick-and-mortar museum, the museum provides access via an online presence with research platforms and in-person events to help research, disseminate and amplify the history of American women. Sasaki, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, has served as interim director of the museum since March 2021.
“We are indebted and grateful to Lisa Sasaki for her leadership as interim director,” Bunch said. “She has ensured the future success of the museum by implementing the necessary building blocks to begin the process of creating a world-class museum.”