Yes We Can
W Magazine|December 2017

How a family-run storefront art space became one of Los Angeles’s most vital cultural forces. By Diane Solway

Diane Solway

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.”

Co-founded 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.’ ”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

RELATED STORIES

Young and restless

ENTERTAINMENT GOSSIP

3 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
November 08, 2021

MEET Y&R'S RORY GIBSON

Rory Gibson was not a stranger to Y&R when he was hired as Noah. “I auditioned for Y&R a couple of years ago for a really small part and it didn’t work out,” admits the actor.

2 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
October 11, 2021

The Soft Sell

The healthcare brand Hims wants to leverage young men’s anxiety over erections and hair loss into a multibillion-dollar empire. It’s been harder than expected.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 25 - November 7, 2021

Leverage: Redemption

FRIDAY, OCT. 8

1 min read
TV Guide Magazine
September 27 - October 27, 2021

Head coach Brian Flores talks about the Raekwon Davis injury, beating New England Week 1, Tua Tagovailoa, Noah Igbinoghene and more

COACH SPEAK

9 mins read
Dolphin Digest
October 2021

SUMMER MOVIE CALENDAR

A rundown of notable films coming out this summer:

7 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #499

Paradise Found

This downtown Tulsa tiki bar stuns the senses and excites the palate.

3 mins read
Oklahoma Today
March/April 2021

MEDIA ELECTION PLANNERS PREPARE FOR A NIGHT OF MYSTERY

This coming weekend, CNN’s Sam Feist will distribute to his staff copies of the testimony news executives gave to Congress when they tried to explain how television networks got 2000’s disputed election so spectacularly wrong.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #470

Star ENTERTAINMENT: THE UNDOING

Sun., Oct. 25 on HBO

1 min read
Star
November 02, 2020

WATERING HOLE

MAY 30, 2020 4:53 P.M. LAKE POWELL, UTAH

1 min read
Bike
Fall 2020