Feature image courtesy of: Bijon Faby
Story images courtesy of: Justin Lubliner
It’s no secret that Los Angeles, America’s second largest city, has one of the greatest art communities in the world. Tourists and art enthusiasts from all over travel to L.A. to visit museum and gallery heavyweights such as LACMA, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, The Getty Center, Regen Projects, and MOCA. But apart from some of the city’s larger fixtures, there’s also a thriving scene of smaller institutions that are doing things that are just as exciting. One of them being The Underground Museum.
The UM was founded in 2012 by the late Noah Davis and his wife Karon. Both artists themselves, their mission was to give the inner city an opportunity to see museum-quality art, free of charge, and for the last four years, the Arlington Heights-based art space has made headlines for the various exhibits they’ve shown. In 2014, they held The Oracle, an exhibit that featured m.A.A.d., the short film Kendrick Lamar commissioned Kahlil Joseph to create.
We recently got the chance to speak with Justen LeRoy who helps out with the daily operations at The UM. LeRoy serves as the eyes and ears for the museum and when he’s not working in the gift shop or giving tours, he’s strategizing ways to better assist the L.A. art community. One of his more recent projects is a publication called SON., where he aims to change the way black males are seen in America. “My end-all goal with SON. is to create a map of the multi-conventional experience of black maleness and really carve out a space where we don’t have to perform within the box that’s sort of been given to us,” says LeRoy. Check below to see what else the L.A. native has to say about living in a world surrounded by art.
In your words, what is The Underground Museum and what does it mean to you?
The Underground Museum is a force. We are a contemporary art space that also functions as a community space. We are providing the immediate community access to the world of contemporary art by bringing the works to them instead of asking locals to travel into crazy parts of town that are expensive and not welcoming. In my opinion, The Underground [Museum] is a safe haven, so I’m happy to be able to give people a space to look at art and communicate their thoughts without judgement. It means the world to me.
Tell us about the latest exhibit, Non-fiction.
Non-fiction is our second show in collaboration with MOCA, but it’s our first show we’ve put on since our founder passed of cancer last summer. Non-fiction is an ode to the victims of racial violence. In the show, we’re exploring the history of brutality and black men because it’s something that’s incredibly important to us. We’re constantly confronted with people that look like me or you being killed every day, and we have yet to find a safe space to talk about it. Non-fiction gives us the opportunity to learn and to be uplifted. It’s not only a show about brutality, but it’s also a show about blackness.
Is there a specific aesthetic for the art displayed?
I don’t want to speak for what we’ve done in the past or what we will do in the future, but I can say that we are a multi-medium gallery. Our last show only featured video content but our current show showcases a sculpture, a painting, and some prints—so it’s constantly changing.
How has the overall response been from the community?
Man, it’s been huge! I’ve spoken to locals who had no idea we existed. I’ve spoken with people in this community who don’t feel worthy of our presence. I had to affirm that they are all worthy for having a space like this, especially in their neighborhood. There is no wall between them and art. Reversely, sometimes, it can be weird. Some people come here expecting The UM to be this cool place where they can walk with their nose up, but then they realize we’re not an institution like that at all. This is a place that does not welcome that tough or cold art exterior. There are a lot of people who have asked us how we can work together too. And that’s all we can hope for—to get people talking and thinking.
Who is behind the museum and what are their roles?
The space was founded by Noah Davis and his wife Karon in 2012. They lived here, they made work here, they showed work here, and they raised their son Moses here. Noah’s brother Kahlil and his wife, Onye Anyanwu, are also associated with The UM as well as Megan Steinman, who is our director. Then there’s me—I open up and close the space. I’m also responsible for producing events and I act as a liaison between the locals and our space. I make sure to provide a platform for young artists and locals to have a comfortable space.
So, tell us about how you got your start?
I was working at the MOCA and at Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel when I started hearing about Kahlil and Kendrick Lamar’s piece, m.A.A.d. About a year and a half ago, while I was still in art school, I reached out to The Underground and asked if they were looking for interns or volunteers. Then I popped by to see Non-Fiction. I ended up staying the whole night and talked with Megan about artist growth and creativity. That was on a Sunday. The next day Megan called and said that Kahlil, Onye, and Karon read my resume and were hoping I could stop by. I started working Tuesday.
How have you grown while working under such good company?
Man, immensely. I fuck up every day. So with each fuck-up, I learn. I learn the ins-and-outs of what it takes to run an establishment and the business that goes into it. I’m learning about how every little detail adds up to a larger picture. I learn a lot from just watching how people like Kahlil, Onye, Megan, and Karon work. They have been a huge inspiration. They juggle kids and other projects. Megan is always traveling and curating. It’s a lot of work but I’m incredibly thankful.
What’s in store for the museum down the line?
I can’t give away too much, but we’re launching some exciting things programming wise. We’re also trying to make better use of the garden space by hosting yoga and dance lessons. We’re looking forward to strengthening our existing partnerships and making some new ones, so stay tuned!