THE UNDERGROUND MUSEUM (UM) in Los Angeles announced “with deep sadness” that it is closing “until further notice” and the tenure of co-directors Meg Onli and Cristina Pacheco has ended. The action also cuts short a long-awaited exhibition of paintings by the museum’s visionary co-founder Noah Davis (1983-2015). The survey opened six weeks ago on Jan. 28 and was expected to be on view until Sept. 30.

Karon Davis shared the surprising news March 15 in a message addressed to “UM Family” that was posted on Instagram, delivered via email to the museum’s subscribers, and appears in a pop-up message on the museum’s website.

 


Installation view of “Noah Davis,” the exhibition of paintings by the artist/co-founder that was on display when The Underground Museum announced it was closing “until further notice.” | Photo by Elon Schoenholz

 

The Underground Museum was founded a decade ago in 2012 by Noah and Karon Davis in four converted storefronts. The married artists were determined to bring museum-quality art to their Arlington Heights neighborhood of mostly Black and Latino residents. Three years later, Davis died from a rare cancer in 2015. He was only 32. In the years, since Karon, and Noah’s brother (filmmaker Kahlil Joseph), sister-in-law (film producer Onye Anyanwu), and mother (Faith Childs-Davis, an arts administrator and educator) have shepherded the museum forward, working with a board and a dedicated staff. The Black-founded institution recently transitioned to new leadership, beyond the family.

Onli and Pacheo took on their new roles a few months ago. Their appointment as co-leaders of The Underground Museum was announced in October 2021. Pancheo had been serving as a UM board member since 2015 and transitioned to co-interim director and COO in 2020, before being named director and chief operations officer. Previously an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Onli officially started at UM as director and curator on Dec. 1.

“They have been extraordinary and we are so grateful for the work they did with us,” Davis said.

Building up the museum “has been an incredible journey” for the family, accompanied by what could be described as emotional growing pains based on the announcement.

“…it has also been deeply painful,” Davis said in the message. “As soon as Noah passed, each of us immediately jumped into the work of running the museum to realize his vision. As a result, we were not able to fully grieve his loss privately or take the time needed to heal.”

She continued: “This was made all too clear when Noah’s paintings returned to the space for the first time since his passing. It was also evident in how hard it has been for our family to let go enough to allow Meg and Cristina to do their jobs.” Pancheo and Onli did not respond to requests for comment from Culture Type.

“…it has been [hard] for our family to let go enough to allow Meg and Cristina to do their jobs.They have been extraordinary and we are so grateful for the work they did with us.” — Karon Davis


Among paintings on view in “Noah Davis” at The Underground Museum: NOAH DAVIS, “The Last Barbeque,” 2008 (oil on canvas, 60 x 52 inches / 152.4 x 132.1 cm). | © Estate of Noah Davis, Courtesy Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner Gallery

 

SINCE ITS FOUNDING, The Underground Museum has centered art and community, with a 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.”

UM mounted several themed exhibitions featuring world-class art curated by Noah Davis. “The Oracle” (July-September 2014) brought together sculptures by Henry Taylor, ceramics by Ruby Neri, and “m.A.A.d.” (a multichannel video portrait of Compton, Calif., with a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack) by Joseph, Noah’s brother, with 19th century carvings from Sudan. That eclectic show was followed by “William Kentridge: Journey to the Moon,” which opened in June 2015 shortly before Davis passed. Three others were presented posthumously, based on plans Davis left behind.

More recently, the museum organized solo shows of Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, Rodney McMillian, and Deana Lawson. In addition to presenting exhibitions and public programs with hundreds of artists, including performances, film screenings, and talks, the community-oriented cultural hub hosted special wellness activities and neighborhood events, such as yoga and meditation sessions and annual Holiday Block Parties—all of it free and open to everyone.

A major exhibition of Noah Davis paintings was presented at mega gallery David Zwirner in New York in early 2020, bringing broader exposure and critical attention to the artist’s poetic figurative images. The show, titled simply “Noah Davis,” was organized by Helen Molesworth, an independent curator and writer who serves on UM’s board and began collaborating with the artist before his death when she was chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. A version of the exhibition was originally expected to travel to The Underground Museum in March 2020. Those plans were put on hold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the museum’s closure for public health and safety.

Temporarily shuttered, the museum continued its work throughout the pandemic. UM hosted virtual programs, introduced a new Noah Davis Prize for curators supported by the Chanel Culture Fund in September 2021, and announced the appointment of new co-directors of the museum a month later.

Meanwhile, the Estate of Noah Davis is now represented by David Zwirner, where a second solo show of his work was featured at the gallery’s London space in October 2021. At Art Basel Miami Beach in December, David Zwirner reported one of Davis’s paintings sold for $1.4 million, reflecting rising market interest in his work.

 


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

 

AFTER A NEARLY TWO-YEAR HIATUS due to the pandemic, UM planned to reopen to the public on Jan. 12, welcoming visitors back for the much-anticipated debut of “Noah Davis.” Another spike in the pandemic caused further delay, pushing the opening back to Jan. 28. Curated by Molesworth with Justen Leroy, UM’s public engagement leader, the exhibition featured 20 paintings made between 2007 and 2015.

“…a great deal has changed since Noah’s passing in 2015: COVID, the movement for Black lives, and the growth of his legacy have impacted us all individually and as a family. These issues are affecting how each of us views the museum and our roles within it,” Karon Davis said in the message.

“For now, we ask that everyone give us the space and privacy needed to understand the future of the museum and to heal individually and collectively. We simply do not have any answers right now. So, we will also be closing the museum until further notice. During this period, we encourage you to engage with the incredible art spaces all over our beloved Los Angeles.”

In conclusion she said: “Noah’s family and the UM are his greatest legacy and we are committed to doing all we can to enable them to flourish once again. Until then, it’s all love.” CT

 

UPDATE (03/18/21): Mention of “The Oracle” (2014) exhibition was added among the shows curated by Noah Davis at The Underground Museum.

 

FIND MORE In 2016, Noah Davis’s 1975 Paintings were on view at Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. The paintings are based on photographs taken by his mother, Faith Childs-Davis, when she was a high school student in Chicago

FIND MORE Meg Onli is co-curator with Erin Christovale of “Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation,” the first major retrospective of the video and performance artist, currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles

FIND MORE about the artistic practice of Karon Davis at Salon 94 in New York and Wilding Cran Gallery in Los Angeles

 

BOOKSHELF
“Noah Davis,” the artist’s first monograph was published in 2020. A new publication is forthcoming that will feature an essay by writer and musician Greg Tate and a conversation moderated by Molesworth with curator Thomas Lax, artists Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehretu, and poet/scholar Fred Moten. Noah Davis is also featured in the exhibition catalog “30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection.”

 

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