ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When the artist Noah Davis died of a rare form of cancer, he left behind paintings, videos and perhaps most significantly a museum he founded in a Los Angeles neighborhood without much else in the way of art. Davis died exactly one year ago, and NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the museum to see how this Underground Museum is doing.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: On this sweltering night, the Underground Museum was packed.
JAZZI MCGILBERT: It's crowded. It's hot, but it feels really good. I'm glad it's crowded and hot honestly.
ULABY: Visitor Jazzi McGilbert, like many folks crammed in here tonight, is young, creative and African-American. She drove across town to this unassuming, bunker-like storefront for an event combining arts and activism, partly why the Underground Museum is one of her favorite spots in Los Angeles.
MCGILBERT: I like what it stands for I mean from the words on the door outside that say, you know, this is a black space, but all are welcome.
ULABY: To its promotion of cutting-edge African-American art.
MCGILBERT: And the art is incredible.
ULABY: When artist Noah Davis founded the Underground Museum, he wanted to do two things - sidestep the existing gallery system with its hierarchies and gatekeepers and bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis was a rising star with friends like the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Helen Molesworth remembers when he asked her for help.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: So he wasn't asking for, you know, someone to help him with the marketing or - do you know what I mean? He was asking us for the art.
ULABY: Beyond audacious to ask for a loan of whatever he wanted from MOCA's valuable collection.
MOLESWORTH: No one had ever asked like that before.
ULABY: But Molesworth was intrigued by the idea that an institution like hers could bring art in this way to people who might not otherwise see it.
MOLESWORTH: This is pretty much unheard of.
ULABY: Of course Molesworth did not just hand MOCA's art over. She insisted the Underground Museum upgrade its security and HVAC. Then she left it alone.
MOLESWORTH: I know how to make a museum. I don't know how to make an underground museum.
ULABY: Noah Davis knew how to make an underground museum. When he died from cancer, he was only 32 years old. Davis left instructions for more than a dozen shows, but they're mostly just ideas and lists of the works he wanted to display.
KARON DAVIS: Come on in.
ULABY: Here we are, walking into the museum with Noah Davis's widow. Karon Davis is the Underground Museum's co-founder.
DAVIS: Museums can be intimidating.
MEGAN STEINMAN: Yeah.
ULABY: Davis hired a director, Megan Steinman, to help run the Underground Museum in the wake of her husband's death partly because Steinman shared their goal of challenging what museums can be.
STEINMAN: Museums are gorgeous, but they also come with this idea of how you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to stand and how loud you are supposed to be and if you can talk or not.
ULABY: And whether you can afford the entrance fee, how hard it is to get there.
STEINMAN: And then you get there, and it's, like, massive walls and these cavernous spaces. And it's, like, all these things that are telling your mind, like, how to think before you even get to the artwork itself.
ULABY: The artwork at the Underground Museum is cutting-edge, often conceptual, like wallpaper that shows a lynching. Noah Davis hung a photograph on top of it - a haunting real-life portrait of a lynching victim's wife in the American South.
DAVIS: The look in her eyes - that grief, that pain. You could just feel her heart and her soul in this photograph.
ULABY: Koran Davis is Los Angeles royalty. She's the daughter of actor Ben Vereen. She's part of an electric circle of black artists and intellectuals, including her late husband's brother, who's also an artist and co-directed Beyonce's latest huge project, the hour-long video, "Lemonade."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY")
BEYONCE: (Singing) He trying to roll me up.
ULABY: But the underground museum is resolutely down to earth. It's like a community center that just happens to show art by giant stars like Kerry James Marshall. He's about to have a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are yoga classes and a spacious outside garden where people in the neighborhood are encouraged to hang out and read. It's called the Purple Garden, says Koran Davis, because her late husband thought everyone should be treated like royalty.
DAVIS: I miss him.
ULABY: What's keeping the Underground Museum alive, says its director Megan Steinman, is a sense of purpose and responsibility.
STEINMAN: This space is Noah's magnum opus. It is his biggest installation work. It's his gift. And now he's not here, and now we all get to still keep on being in conversation with him.
ULABY: Noah Davis chose art about perseverance, racial violence, family and resistance, but there's no text on the walls telling people what to think. Noah Davis trusted visitors to have a conversation where no one gets the last word. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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