THE UNDERGROUND MUSEUM (UM) in Los Angeles announced three recipients of the new Noah Davis Prize today. Curators Candice Hopkins, Jamillah James, and Thomas Jean Lax are the inaugural winners of the prize. Each will receive $25,000 and participate in a curatorial symposium at the museum in spring 2022.

Supported by the Chanel Culture Fund, the prize honors the legacy of artist Noah Davis (1983-2015), co-founder of The Underground Museum, and recognizes curators who reflect his vision of transformation in the museum field by staging innovative exhibitions that expand audiences for visual art and culture.

Hopkins is an independent curator. James is senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) and co-curator of the 2021 New Museum Triennial at the New Museum in New York. At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Lax is curator of media and performance.


Inaugural Noah Davis Prize Winners: From left, Curators Candice Hopkins, Jamillah James, and Thomas Jean Lax. | Photos: Courtesy The Underground Museum; By Paul Sepuya; By Lola Flash


“The Chanel Culture Fund is committed to propelling transformative ideas that advance culture and community—values championed by Underground Museum and the recipients of the first Noah Davis Prize,” Yana Peel, global head of Arts & Culture at Chanel said in a statement. “We look forward to growing our partnership with The Underground Museum as it expands its work as a groundbreaking cultural hub and incubator.”

The prize recipients were determined by a jury of their peers: Hilton Als, independent curator and staff writer at The New Yorker; Los Angeles County Museum of Art Curator Christine Kim; and art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims. The winners were selected for curating a specific exhibition.

Hopkins was recognized for co-curating “New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now.” Billed as “the first exhibition to chart the development of contemporary Indigenous art in the United States and Canada,” the landmark exhibition was organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Ark. (Oct. 6, 2018-Jan. 7, 2019), and traveled to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

James was honored for “A Shape That Stands Up,” a group show of 15 artists working at the intersection of figuration and abstraction, presented at Art + Practice in Los Angeles in collaboration with the Hammer Museum (March 19-June 18, 2016). Lax was identified for co-organizing “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done” at MoMA (Sept. 16, 2018–Feb. 3, 2019). The show explored the history of the group based out of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village through live performance, film, photography, sculptural objects, musical scores, poetry, and archival materials.

“The Underground Museum is more than a building—it’s a way of approaching the world. With the Noah Davis Prize, we have the opportunity to extend the philosophy of The Underground Museum beyond its walls, and to honor a community of peers who represent Noah’s legacy of generosity. In so doing, we hope to create a beacon for others who embrace our values to create change in the art world,” artist Karon Davis, co-founder of The Underground Museum, said in a statement.

“The Underground Museum is more than a building—it’s a way of approaching the world. With the Noah Davis Prize, we have the opportunity to extend the philosophy of The Underground Museum beyond its walls, and to honor a community of peers who represent Noah’s legacy of generosity.”
— Karon Davis

Noah Davis in Los Angeles, 2009. | Photo by Patrick O’Brien-Smith, Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery


THE UNDERGROUND MUSEUM is the living legacy of Davis, an artist, curator, and institution builder. In 2012, Davis co-founded the museum with his wife Karon, with the goal of showcasing canon-worthy art in his Arlington Heights neighborhood, a Black and Latinx community. Three years later, Davis died from a rare cancer. He was only 32.

The modest project became an ambitious enterprise housed in a series of storefronts with a welcoming garden in the back. Davis forged a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), under which the museum would loan UM artworks for its exhibitions, and he was collaborating with Helen Molesworth, then chief curator at MOCA. The late artist developed 18 exhibitions and only had the opportunity to present one, “Imitation of Wealth” (2013).

Since his untimely passing, Karon has continued to operate the museum as a family-run space, with help from Davis’s older brother, artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. Along with Karon, he serves on the museum’s board with his wife Onye Anyanwu, a film producer.

UM has mounted four themed exhibitions of world-class art curated by Davis. The first show, “William Kentridge: Journey to the Moon,” opened in June 2015, shortly before Davis died, and was on view through February 2016. Three others were presented posthumously based on plans he left behind: “Artists of Color” (2017-18) showcased minimalist and color-field works, dating from the 1960 to present, by artists such as Josef Albers, Dan Flavin, Carmen Herrera, Jennie C. Jones, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly. Artists Robert Gober, Deana Lawson, Kerry James Marshall, Marion Palfi, Henry Taylor, Kara Walker, were among those featured in “Nonfiction” (2016-17), a meditation on violence against Black people. More recently, the museum organized solo shows of Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, Rodney McMillian, and Lawson.

The museum has lived up to its stated mission “to ensure that no one has to travel outside the neighborhood to see world-class art, or learn from leading thinkers, educators, chefs, and artists.” A lively gathering space and cultural hub, UM hosts exhibitions, film screenings, talks, and yoga sessions. Food distribution and free classes and events for children, adults, and families are also offered.

The museum has lived up to its stated mission “to ensure that no one has to travel outside the neighborhood to see world-class art, or learn from leading thinkers, educators, chefs, and artists.”

Supported by a dedicated staff, the family is nurturing a museum space directly connected to the community. It’s a model larger mainstream, decades-old art museums with huge endowments have taken notice of as they strategize how to better engage with their own local communities and diversify their audiences.

Molesworth, now a Los Angeles-based writer and curator, has continued to participate in the museum, serving on the board and focusing on Davis’s artistic practice. She has been a driving force. Last year, Molesworth curated “Noah Davis” at mega gallery David Zwirner in New York, bringing broader exposure and critical attention to the artist’s poetic figurative images. The survey included 26 paintings by Davis, dating from 2007 to 2015.

A new publication was produced to coincide with the solo show. A version of the exhibition was expected to travel to The Underground Museum in March 2020. Those plans were put on hold in with wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Davis is now represented by David Zwirner. Opening Oct. 6 in London, the gallery will host its second solo show of Davis, his first-ever presentation in the United Kingdom. On the occasion of the forthcoming exhibition, a new volume will be published. The publication features an essay by Greg Tate and a conversation among Lax, Fred Moten, and artists Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehretu, moderated by Molesworth.

Similar to the New York exhibition, the London show explores the painting practice of Davis, alongside his social practice project—the Black-owned, family-run neighborhood museum. The exhibition will feature “a group of his most enduring paintings as well as models, artworks, and archival materials that tell the story of the Underground Museum.”

It’s a great story and the foundation of Davis’s legacy, which is fortified by a growing exhibition history, publication record, and a new curatorial prize established in his honor.

“Part of Noah Davis’s genius was his generosity. As an artist-curator he focused on the profound power of art objects to generate ideas and feelings, which in turn could be used as catalysts for dialogue, love, friendship, and community. The work of all three of the curators we are recognizing with this award embody and extend these values,” Molesworth said in a statement.

The Underground Museum has remained closed for a year-and-a-half since the onset of the pandemic. In January, it will reopen with a career-spanning exhibition of Davis, curated by Molesworth. A few months later, in the spring, Hopkins, James, and Lax, the recipients of his namesake prize, will gather at the museum for a community-based curatorial symposium. CT


READ MORE The New York Times profiled The Underground Museum in March 2020

FIND MORE In 2016, “Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum” was on view at Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Wash., where the brothers were born. The exhibition was “the largest and widest selection of work by Davis and Joseph ever shown in a museum”



“Noah Davis” was published on the occasion of the artist’s 2020 exhibition at David Zwirner in New York. The fully-illustrated volume is edited by Helen Molesworth and included contributions by Henry Taylor, among others. A forthcoming monograph accompanying the artist’s London exhibition at David Zwirner. “Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum” documents an exhibition of the brothers at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, their hometown. Noah Davis is also among the artists featured in the traveling exhibition “30 Americans.”


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