The Underground Museum, a nonprofit gallery and cultural center in Los Angeles, said on Tuesday that it would close its current exhibition of museum cofounder Noah Davis’s paintings early. Also in that announcement was news that the museum’s co-directors, Meg Onli and Cristina Pacheco, would be stepping down from their roles. Onli had just started working there full-time in December after having started out at the museum part-time in September.
“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,” Karon Davis, a cofounder of the museum, wrote in a statement posted to Instagram. “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.”
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The circumstances of Onli and Pacheco’s departures were not clear. Davis seemed to hint at strained relations between her family and the directors, saying, “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.” Neither Onli nor Pacheco responded to requests for comment.
The artist couple Noah and Karon Davis founded the Underground Museum in 2012 with the goal of bringing “experiences traditionally reserved for major institutions to diverse audiences for free,” according to a description on the museum’s site. Over the past decade, the institution, located in the primarily Black and Latino Arlington Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles, has developed into a popular cultural space and community center, with a verdant, inviting garden behind its storefront exhibition space.
Onli joined the Underground Museum in December as director and curator, coming from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where she was a curator. As director, Onli co-led the Underground Museum alongside Pacheco, who had been co-interim director and chief operations officer since 2020 and a member of the board since 2015.
Noah Davis, who died at age 32 in 2015 after battling a rare form of cancer, organized a variety of shows for the institution, some of which were mounted posthumously. Among them were “Artists of Color” (2017), which looked at political and social content within seemingly formal abstract works, and “Non-fiction” (2016), which focused on the violence that people of color confront. He also formed a partnership with L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art through former MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth. Doing so allowed the Underground Museum to borrow iconic artworks from MOCA’s collection for its own presentations.
After Noah’s death, his brother, artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, joined Karon in running the museum. Joseph’s “conceptual journalism” project BLKNWS was included in 2019 Venice Biennale as well as the Hammer Museum’s 2020 Made in LA biennial. He has also directed videos for Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Joseph and his wife, the film producer Onye Anyanwu, are both on the board of the Underground Museum.
Over the past couple years, the Underground Museum has expanded its programming, launching initiatives such as the $25,000 Noah Davis Prize for curators, which is supported by the Chanel Culture Fund. The inaugural recipients, announced in September, shortly before Onli’s hire, were Candice Hopkins, Jamillah James, and Thomas Jean Lax.
At the time of his death, Noah Davis was reported to have left behind some 400 paintings, collages, and sculptures. His estate is now represented by David Zwirner gallery, which reportedly sold a $1.4 million painting by the artist at its Art Basel Miami booth in 2021. In April, Davis’s work will be included in the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale.
The exhibition of around 20 lush, figurative paintings by Davis that is about to close came to the Underground Museum after appearing at David Zwirner’s New York and London locations. The show was curated by Helen Molesworth, who sits on the museum’s board, and Justen Leroy, an artist and former employee of the institution, and it marked the reopening of the Underground Museum in February after almost two years of pandemic closure. Initially slated to run through September 30, the show was Davis’s first solo survey at the museum.
Correction, 3/15/22, 5:10 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Onli’s start date at the Underground Museum. She started working there full-time in December, not January.