It’s a sweltering night in July and Los Angeles’ Underground Museum is packed. “It’s crowded and hot, but it feels really good,” says vistor Jazzi McGilbert. Like much of the crowd, McGilbert is young, creative and African-American. She drove across town to this unassuming, bunkerlike storefront for an event that combines art and activism. The museum is one of her favorite spots in Los Angeles. “I like what it stands for,” McGilbert says. “… And the art is incredible.”
When artist Noah Davis founded the museum, he wanted to do two things: sidestep the existing gallery system, with its rigid hierarchies and gatekeepers, and bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis died a year ago Monday of a rare form of cancer.
A beyond audacious request
When Davis began working on the museum, he was a rising art world star with powerful friends, like Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Molesworth remembers when Davis first asked for her help.
“He wasn’t asking for, you know, someone to help him with the marketing … he was asking us for the art,” she says. In other words, he was asking the museum to lend him whatever he wanted from its valuable collection — a beyond audacious request.
“No one had ever asked like that before,” Molesworth says. She was intrigued by the idea that an institution like hers could help bring art to people who might not otherwise see it. But she didn’t just hand over MOCA’s art — first she helped Davis upgrade the Underground Museum’s security and HVAC system to protect the art. Then she left it alone.
“I know how to make a museum,” Molesworth says. “I don’t know how to make an underground museum.”
Noah Davis did. When he died from cancer, he was only 32 years old. He left instructions for the next 18 shows, but they’re mostly just concepts, titles and lists of the works he wanted to display. In the wake of his death, Megan Steinman joined as the museum’s director. She understood their goal of challenging what museums can be.
“Museums are gorgeous,” Steinman says, “but they also come with this idea of how you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to stand and how loud you’re supposed to be and if you can talk or not.” Also: whether you can afford the entrance fee and how hard it is to get there. “And then you get there and it’s like massive walls and these cavernous spaces,” she says, “and it’s like all these things that are telling your mind how to think before you even get to the artwork itself.”
The artwork at the Underground Museum is cutting-edge and often conceptual. One work features wallpaper that shows a lynching. Noah Davis hung a photograph on top of it — a haunting, real-life portrait of a lynching victim’s wife in the American South from 1949.
“The look in her eyes — that grief, that pain — you can just feel her heart and her soul in this photograph,” says Karon Davis, Noah Davis’ widow and the museum’s co-founder.
‘Noah’s magnum opus’
Karon Davis is also Los Angeles royalty: She’s the daughter of actor Ben Vereen and part of an electric circle of black artists and intellectuals. (That circle includes her late husband’s brother, Kahlil Joseph, who co-directed Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade.)
But the Underground Museum is resolutely down to earth — like a community center that just happens to show art by giant stars, like Kerry James Marshall. (Marshall is about to have a major retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he lent some personal work to the Underground Museum show.) There are yoga classes and a spacious outside garden where people in the neighborhood are encouraged to hang out and read. It’s called the Purple Garden because, Karon Davis explains, her late husband thought everyone should be treated like royalty.
Steinman says Noah Davis’ legacy is what’s keeping the Underground Museum alive. “This space is Noah’s magnum opus. It is his biggest installation work; it’s his gift. And now he’s not here and now we all get to still keep on being in conversation with him.”
It’s a conversation in which no one gets the last word. Unlike most museums, Noah Davis didn’t put text on the walls to tell people what to think of the art he chose — art about perseverance, racial violence, family and resistance. He trusted visitors to decide for themselves.
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