Outrage ensued after the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) announced the abrupt cancellation of its scheduled Asian American Literature Festival with little to no explanation.
Key details: Internal emails shared with The Washington Post revealed that acting Smithsonian (APAC) Director Yao-Fen You informed the festival’s founder Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, who is also a curator at the Smithsonian, on June 28 that any upcoming events should be reviewed under the Smithsonian Directive 603 “due to the current political climate.” The directive reportedly allows reviewers to identify “potentially controversial exhibitions.”
The acting director instructed Davis to write a draft memo, which was then submitted to the operations staff on July 2. You then reviewed the memo on July 5 and reportedly sent her email about the festival’s cancellation that same evening.
How people reacted: Rosabel Tan, one of the leaders of a delegation of 10 writers from Australia and New Zealand, told the Post she had no idea who You was as it was the first time they had interacted.
Several organizations were also caught off guard by the announcement, including Kaya Press and literary nonprofit Kundiman.
Poet Ching-In Chen, one of the writers who planned to attend the festival, said they were not notified of the decision through colleagues.
Their explanation: In a statement to the Post, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson Linda St. Thomas explained that officials ultimately decided to cancel the event as “festival organizers were unable to prepare a full packet of confirmed materials for this review of the program and its content,” which was purportedly scheduled to take place Wednesday.
St. Thomas added that the festival “could not be executed to the high-level standards required by the Smithsonian.”
Speaking to WTOP in an email, St. Thomas noted that they had explored “other options, including a virtual format for this year and a different and larger public event next year to increase our local and national reach.”
Condemning the decision: More than 70 festival partners and participants signed an open letter on Monday condemning the Smithsonian APAC’s decision to cancel the event, calling it unprofessional and “unacceptable.”
“This cancellation communicates to us that the Smithsonian does not feel accountable to partners and community, does not work collaboratively, and does not care about how it harms people, particularly communities of color,” the open letter read in part.
Open letter signatories are also asking for You’s resignation as acting director of APAC and for the event to be rescheduled to 2024.