Yao expressed a desire to get started as founding director of the Smithsonian Women’s Museum, saying she feels “the need to run fast.” But then, she warned, “you have to pace yourself.”
“I feel incredibly energized,” Yao added. “I feel pumped. And I feel like there’s a lot of work to do.”
The Smithsonian announced Monday Yao’s appointment to the American Women’s History Museum’s top job, which she will begin June 5. The selection has been more than two years in the making: Congress authorized the Women’s Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino in December 2020, and Jorge Zamanillo was named the latter facility’s founding director in February 2022. Lisa Sasaki has served as interim director of the Women’s Museum since March 2021 and temporarily left his position as director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
History shows that Yao has a long way to go. The last new Smithsonian site, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was approved in 2003 but did not open until 2016.
“For decades, people have waited for this opportunity to shine a brighter light on women, both famous and unborn, who profoundly changed the world,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a statement. “Nancy’s proven experience, skill and leadership will be critical to bringing the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum to life and enabling it to creatively tell a more robust and complete story of who we are as a nation.”
Under Yao’s leadership, the Museum of Chinese in America raised over $60 million to secure a permanent home in New York City and last year unveiled plans for a sprawling new facility designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. In 2020, the Ford Foundation named the museum, which employs about a dozen employees, one of “America’s Cultural Treasures.” That nod came as Yao led an effort to save the museum’s artifacts after a five-alarm fire in its research room earlier that year.
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Explaining how running a relatively modest museum prepared her for the Smithsonian task, Yao said, “When you’re faced with a lack of resources and sometimes a marginalized narrative, it feels like an uphill climb every single day .”
In addition to running the Museum of Chinese in America, Yao lectures at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama, serves as board secretary for the arts nonprofit Tessitura Network, and sits on the McGraw Hill equity advisory board. She was previously executive director of the Yale-China Association and has held positions at Goldman Sachs, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Center for Finance and Research Analysis. Yao, who received his bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Management, also worked as an associate producer for CNN International early in his career.
As founding director of the Smithsonian Women’s Museum, she is tasked with acquiring a national collection, curating exhibits and developing a virtual presence before the physical space is built.
“When the opportunity came — and this is kind of a cliche phrase — I felt like the people I met at the Smithsonian, they saw me,” said Yao, who added that she was first approached about the position late last year. “I felt they saw my worth. They saw my ability to contribute to this historic effort. They saw my eclectic mix of transferable skills.”
The Women’s Museum, with 14 employees, a 25-member advisory board and a $2 million federal budget, has already raised more than $55 million, the Smithsonian said. The institution’s board of trustees announced in October that it had selected two optimal locations for the Women’s and Latino Museums on the southwest section of the National Mall, although the Smithsonian needs congressional approval to finalize the sites.
Yao will continue to serve in her role at the Museum of Chinese in America until May, although she plans to make regular visits to DC. When she starts her new job in June, Yao said she will ask staff, her fellow museum directors and other Smithsonian stakeholders for their thoughts on how the Women’s Museum should move forward.
“It’s actually many, many puzzle pieces, and we have to start putting the puzzle together,” Yao said. “I just have to get the border in first.”