How the Family-Run Underground Museum Became One of L.A.’s Most Vital Cultural Forces

The night after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins made his way to the Underground Museum, a buzzy cultural hub and alternative art space in the ­predominantly black-and-Latino neighborhood of Arlington Heights, in ­Central Los Angeles. Walking into the small storefront space for a post-screening Q&A, he saw few viewers inside and assumed that ­distress over the previous night’s outcome had made everyone stay home. Then he stepped outside into the garden and found 250 people packed tightly together on blankets on the lawn. They had just watched ­Moonlight on the outdoor screen and were eager to talk—not about craft or behind-the-scenes stuff, as they typically did at Jenkins’s Q&A’s, he says, but about how they felt. Jenkins recalls it as the most meaningful night of the movie’s rollout.

“I was struck by what a diverse crowd it was—tons of black folks, ­people from the neighborhood, white, Latino, Asian. And I thought, This is America,” says the director, whose film went on to win the Oscar for best picture. “Nothing could replicate the feeling that we had that night. It was almost like group therapy, all of us just out there under the stars, witnessing this thing we’d made and using it to bring us together.”

Cofounded in 2012 by the painter Noah Davis, a rising L.A. art star, and his wife, Karon, a sculptor, the Underground Museum began as a row of storefront spaces that doubled as the couple’s studio and home. Though the Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York, and the Rubell Family Collection, in Miami, had acquired some of Davis’s moody ­figurative paintings, Davis wanted to sidestep the gallery system, preferring to bring museum-quality art to a community that had no access to it “within walking distance,” as he once put it.

Soon, he and Karon were opening their doors to anyone passing by, and Noah was curating ­eclectic shows—of his own work and of others’, including his older brother, Kahlil Joseph, an artist and filmmaker who created music videos and would go on to direct videos for Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Noah was 32 when he died of a rare type of soft tissue cancer, in 2015; by then he had forged a unique partnership with the Museum of ­Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), which had agreed to loan the Underground Museum works from its permanent collection for a series of shows that Davis would curate. (He was able to work on the first one, and left behind plans for 18 others.)

These days, guided by Karon, Kahlil, and other family members, the Underground Museum is an anomaly in this era of starchitect-designed private museums and foundations: a modest, black-family-run art collective whose convening power is likely the envy of every cultural institution in the country. Beyoncé, the artist David Hammons, and the actress and activist Amandla Stenberg have all been spotted in its purple-themed garden; John Legend and Solange Knowles have launched albums there; and the director Raoul Peck visited to screen his acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Equal parts art gallery, hangout space, film club, and speakeasy, the UM, as it’s affectionately known, focuses on black excellence, not struggle, though it’s been nimble enough to address recent racial turmoil by creating a forum for talks by Angela Davis and by Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. Jenkins likens the museum to “a salon you would have found during the Harlem Renaissance,” in the 1920s and ’30s. “There’s something coming out of that place that is so radical in its potential that you can feel it,” concurs the L.A.-based sculptor Thomas Houseago. “And it draws a mix of people that I don’t find anywhere else in the world. As a white artist, it’s not like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ It’s, ‘Great, you’re here! More hands.’ ”

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, however, you might be forgiven for walking past its unassuming entrance, which intentionally blends into the streetscape of carpet warehouses and tattoo parlors. Step inside and you’re immediately welcomed into an intimate bookshop, curated by Noah’s mother, Faith Childs-Davis, a former teacher who directs the L.A. branch of Tony Bennett’s arts-education nonprofit, Exploring the Arts. Found discarded chairs, reupholstered in Dutch wax prints, offer discreet spots to chat; vintage albums, culled from Noah and Karon’s collection, are often playing on the Crosley turntable. In the exhibition spaces, the current show, “Artists of Color” (through February), features a mix of pieces from MOCA’s permanent collection and other loans—providing a dialogue between artists of different periods and walks of life. But here, too, the vibe is chill. Short quotes by each artist are placed near their works, and the introductory wall text is signed, love, the um. In one gallery, a 1960s light installation by Dan Flavin faces a neon text piece by Los Angeles artist EJ Hill that reads WE DESERVE TO SEE OURSELVES ELEVATED. A long wooden bar in another gallery leads to the backyard garden, the site of an organic food market and yoga classes, where an installation by Diana Thater uses clear colored vinyl to create a giant tunnel of alternating hues.

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