In January 2022, A.i.A. spoke with Meg Onli, director and curator of the Underground Museum (UM), which was cofounded by painter Noah Davis and sculptor Karon Davis in 2012. Starting with a row of four converted storefronts that doubled as their home and studio, the couple created opportunities for artists in the underserved communities of Los Angeles to showcase museum-quality work. Eventually the Davises, in cooperation with the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, formalized their operation into what is today the Underground Museum. Onli, who grew up in Los Angeles, comes to her newly created position from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where, as associate curator, she produced a series of critically acclaimed shows, including the 2017 group exhibition “Speech/Acts,” exploring Black poetry and the implications of language, and a 2021 solo exhibition of Jessica Vaughn’s work. Below, Onli details her plans for reopening the Underground Museum following its pandemic-related closure and some of the ways in which the institution plans to expand on its legacy.
The Underground Museum has been closed for two years due to Covid-19. My first major plan is to reopen the building and usher the public back in. We are beginning with a Noah Davis show [on view through September 30] organized by independent curator Helen Molesworth and artist/curator Justen Leroy, who heads public programing at the UM. Molesworth previously put together a Noah Davis show that started at David Zwirner in New York and then traveled to the gallery’s London venue. Our exhibition is a kind of homecoming for Davis’s work.
The past few months have been an amazing introduction. As a curator, I’m really interested in learning how to install a show in what is, for me, a new exhibition space. Spending time with Molesworth, who worked for four years as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art here in LA, and our own Leroy has helped me get to know the history of the UM as well as the different ways in which its shows have been approached. I’m really interested in bringing Davis’s art back into the space where it was made. Viewers will see paint drips on the floor from when he was producing here in, say, 2013. The show ranges from 2007 to 2015. So we are looking at works in their original context, seven to fifteen years after they were created.
The second aspect I’m addressing is future programming. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, so taking this job has been a kind of revisiting for me. While working on a Ulysses Jenkins retrospective [on view through May 15] at the Hammer Museum, I was in LA almost every month leading up to the pandemic. It gave me the opportunity to experience the city’s shifts and see changes to the UM’s neighborhood, with a lot of people of color leaving because they either don’t want to live in a city or need to relocate somewhere less expensive. Right now, I’m trying to meet with artists as much as possible and to get a sense of what’s happening at nearby institutions such as Crenshaw Dairy Mart, LACE, the Hammer Museum, MoCA LA, and LACMA. I’m in the process of setting up an exhibition program that builds on the legacy of this institution and supports underrepresented artists. I’ve been considering the city as a site and the UM’s place within a long lineage of artist-founded spaces, particularly in the Black and brown communities. It’s important to me to think historically about the museum.
I’m also excited about the Noah Davis Prize, which was launched in 2021. We plan to host a large symposium to honor the work of three curators: Jamilla James, Candice Hopkins, and Thomas Lax. One reason I really wanted to come to the UM is because of the way Noah Davis conceived his curatorial projects. Our shows look outside art history and embrace Black life itself as a framework for exhibition-making. I’m looking forward to furthering these ideas through the Noah Davis Prize process, which involves critical conversations honoring the labor of curators. It’s important to consider expanded canons and how we approach curating as a whole practice, working in collaboration with artists to present their work.
At the moment, my favorite place at the UM is the garden. It has just been redone and is now fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We anticipate bringing people back for our Purple Garden Cinema series as well as our yoga classes and other mindfulness programs. When people enter the space, they are shocked that it’s so serene, especially given that it’s located near a really busy street in LA. The UM garden is an oasis that offers yet another great opportunity to engage our community.