A Conversation with Megan Steinman, Director of The Underground Museum

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We had the opportunity to sit down with Megan Steinman during the frantic LA Arts Weekend this past February. Steinman, an independent curator, writer and the Director of The Underground Museum is a soft-spoken and inspiring force. In a quaint Echo Park cafe, she spoke to us about her journey to UM, the philosophy behind her work, honouring Noah Davis' vision and the importance of mentorship.

IJ: You were Creative Director at Capitol Records, a researcher and photo assistant for an Annie Liebowitz book project and experiential producer before becoming an independent curator. What lead you to curation?

MS: (laughing) I don't have a clear answer for that. It's just something that I've always been drawn to. As you know in the creative direction world, you are curating. My role at Capitol Records was to make album covers for artists, to essentially visually translate their music. I think that that is absolutely the same kind of dialogue that happens when an artist and a curator come together.

I am visually taking people, people meaning the audience, on a journey of this either solo artist's ideas or this group exhibition concept that I have put together. It's very experiential and I think that all art is experiential, regardless of scale. I think reading is experiential, I think that looking at a painting is experiential, listening to music is experiential, standing in a big ass, blinky light, laser, smoke machine 3D projection mapped "immersive room" is experiential. I think that one thing I've always been very interested in is how the work lands and what it means to people. That's my philosophical trajectory.

When I walked in to work with Annie (Leibovitz), she invited me to work with her because I was in the music business and she was working on this music book. I walked in and she was like, "We're gonna do this book." and I was like, "Great! How do you do a book?" I'd never done a book before. And she was like, "I don't know. I've got this drawer of files." And it's like four files of Roseanne and Johnny Cash and I'm thinking, that doesn't feel like a book to me!

It was such an incredible experience of learning because what I first started doing, as far as my research or Annie was concerned, was to think about things like, why would an artist or musician be important? What were his or her stats? What I really quickly learned was that doesn't mean anything. What was really important was who that person was, who their family was, what kind of car they drove. What did it look like on the land where they grew up? Where did they record in their studio? Because that's a photograph. That tells a story. That's how Annie takes people on the journey through her work.

From there, I learned very quickly about production and the importance of that role in curating. Curating is like 70/80 percent production. If you're independent, you have to learn how to integrate yourself within an existing institution and their workflows. You've got to understand insurance and permits. All of those things, what they do is they safely care for the work while it's in your purview. I would say that the long, long short of it is that I got sick of creative direction.

IJ: Which happens!

MS: Yeah, I decided I wanted to have a new conversation. I decided I wanted my own journey to be different. I did not want to be so much a part of this commercial, advertising world, I wanted to be in a world where I was facilitating ideas that were important to humanity. I wanted to serve a different master.

IJ: How did you come to your current role as Director of The Underground Museum?

MS: I worked with Helen Molesworth (currently Chief Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art) when I was in graduate school at USC. I was very interested in dance for my graduate degree thesis. Specifically, dance in exhibition spaces and even more specifically, the idea of kinesthesia and how dance is really the only art form that produces a kinesthetic relationship between viewer and maker.

Helen did a presentation at USC all about her new exhibition called, Dance/Draw that she was doing at ICA Boston and I promptly went up to her after her presentation and asked if she needed a research assistant or intern. She asked if I would be willing to come to Boston and I said sure!

I spent a summer with her and ended up staying on the project of Dance/Draw to write the exhibition catalogue text and whatnot. She was and still is, incredibly generous with her information and knowledge. She took me to studio visits with artists and I actually ended up telling her about several artists that became part of the show and future shows that she did.

Fast forward, I was in Los Angeles, she (Helen) had been in Los Angeles and I walked into The Underground Museum and it essentially represented all of these ideas that I had about communication. Not only that, my entrance essay to get into graduate school that I wrote in 2008 was called MOCA Micro Lessons and I approached it as more of a civic or urban planning exercise.

I was very interested in how the Museum, capital T capital M, could be the centre of a city in the same way that Latin American plazas have a church and businesses all around. They are really an active part of people's lives. I was interested in how you could generate that same feeling with a museum. I conceived that a way we could do that was to take the museum out of its central locus and send it around the city to create satellite spaces. If people from a neighbourhood could prove that they had the infrastructure to support a loan, which meant docents in the neighbourhood and businesses that would benefit from it, and community control and security blah blah blah, then they could apply to get a loan from MOCA's collection. This would be a way to create a network of cities that have the museum as a central focus.

Anyway, I walked into The Underground Museum seven years later and it existed and I was just like mind blown. I had to like kinda sit down and have a little cry about it. Noah's vision for the loans of work from permanent collections everywhere is, of course, much different. He was an artist so he was coming at it from a different perspective. He was interested in how to bring artwork out of the purgatory of collections period because we only see a minuscule portion of a museum's collection.

He was also interested in introducing contemporary art to his neighbourhood. So different motivations, but the same actions. And so I wrote to Helen and I think I even sent her my entrance essay and I was like "I promise I'm a better writer now! This is clearly something I have been thinking about for a long time and if they need anything, please let me know." Two months later she asked me to come down and I met them in person and the first thing I did for them was to produce Non-Fiction.

From Non-Fiction: 1949 portrait of the wife of a lynching victim on top of Robert Grober's 1989 Hanging Man/Sleeping Man screen-printed wallpaper - Underground Museum

From Non-Fiction: 1949 portrait of the wife of a lynching victim on top of Robert Grober's 1989 Hanging Man/Sleeping Man screen-printed wallpaper - Underground Museum

From Non-Fiction: David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993/2016 - Underground Museum

From Non-Fiction: David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993/2016 - Underground Museum

MS: You know all of those production skills that I had were really put to amazing use because this was a family that had just been dealt with two very incredible blows of losing their patriarch and then losing Noah. Kevin, his father, had passed away two years before.

The human bandwidth to do anything at that moment is very small and yet still you've got this massive responsibility. You've just taken on this thing that you said you could do and you kinda can't do it right now. And so, what I honed in on was what it meant to walk into Annie's studio, see four folders, have someone tell you that's a book and say, "Alright, I guess I'm going to figure out how to do this book."

Noah didn't leave any instructions at all and it was like "Hmmm, guess I'm gonna figure out how to integrate myself within this family and make this exhibition for them." So, I did that and then at the opening of Non-Fiction, which was the ending of my agreed upon tenure, I was asked to become the Director.

IJ: When I think about The Underground Museum, it's purpose seems to be to serve the marginalized - to share the work of the marginalized, to service a marginalized, predominantly Black and Latino, community and you are directing this space as a white woman. Were there any barriers that you faced? Was there anything that made you step back and think, "Can I relate? Will the community relate to me? How do I do this?"

MS: Yes. The short answer is yes. We have a lot of language now, luckily, around allyship that I can lean on to think through the position that I took. I should say, I've been very, very measured in my public facing-ness of the museum. All of our docents and associates and our community outreach coordinator are all people of colour intentionally so that when people, especially people of colour, come into the museum they see people that look like them.

IJ: They see themselves reflected.

MS: Yeah. It's interesting because everything about The Underground Museum is very very personal. I really try to always think about Noah and what Noah's intention was. And the interesting thing is that while Noah wanted to serve what he considered to be an art desert, which was this neighbourhood, he wasn't necessarily doing it with artists that were marginalized. We are pulling from MOCA's collection and showing artists that are shown at major museums all around the world. But, it's actually less so about this essentializing of marginalized communities and more about the hyper-integration.

We have this program called The Daily Dose that I started where all of our docents spend about two months before each exhibition working through the perfunctory biographies etc. of the works, as well as why this work matters to them. We have an exhibition titled Water & Power and we had the docents do this comprehensive thinking through of, what does water and power mean? What do these works mean? What is the power grid in Los Angeles? What are our water rights? And a community member came up with an incredibly wonderful telling of environmental racism and how it affected her growing up in her neighbourhood. So this becomes an entry point.

The best I can describe it is that we are a black-owned space, founded by a black family, incredibly proud of that, we have lots of black and brown people representing us to the public, we are representative at the staff level and at the audience level. But, I do think that it is about being 100% interested and invested in the world. And I think that if you come from that place then, as far as running a contemporary art centre is concerned, you can be a white woman and do that you know? And you can know that in the same way a curator has to step back and let the art shine, it's not an ego thing. It's a community thing.

From Water & Power: Images by Brian Forrest

From Water & Power: Images by Brian Forrest

From Water & Power: Images by Brian Forrest

From Water & Power: Images by Brian Forrest

IJ: What is your approach to conceptualizing an exhibition? Where do you start?

MS: Noah.

IJ: I read that he had laid out plans for several exhibitions before his passing. I'm guessing this provides the foundation.

MS: Yes, this is the foundation. This is who this man was. Before he passed away, he got himself a board, obviously had a building already, got himself bylines and the whole nine, created 18 exhibitions from MOCA's permanent collection, and basically was like, Here's the blueprint...

IJ: Go for it.

MS: Go for it. Obviously, we are probably doing it way different than he would have done it because everyone is an individual. But, he's the root and I always just think, wow, how lucky I personally am to get to think through this man's creativity because like I said, it is so deep and it is so broad.

He challenges me on a daily basis, you know? It's like, why these works? Why is this important? How should I hang this? What's the journey that I need to now craft because what he didn't leave us with was any curatorial statement. So we have to think through what does Artists of Color mean? Why these artists? What is Water & Power all about? In the exact way that we want for The Underground Museum to become a platform for critical thinking, Noah's making us into critical thinkers.

IJ: In your current exhibition, Deana Lawson: Planes, I was struck by the deep, dark purple walls as a backdrop for the images, the usage of crystals in some areas, but not in others. What informed those decisions?

MS: Many of those decisions are from Deana herself. The Underground Museum started off as an artist studio and we always want to remain an artist studio and have the artists very involved. We want to give the artists lots and lots of agency in terms of how they tell their story.

The purple walls came from the idea of these state-run institutions in Europe that have these dark burgundy or jewel-toned walls and the paintings would pop off of that. We wanted to do our version of that. The crystals are there to protect and energize the space.

Deana's work is the incredible integration of cosmology on the one end and then the diaspora on the other. It's more of an intersection than an integration, kind of like as both of these things are traveling through time and space and they hit one another. We wanted to create this all-encompassing world where people could step beyond this idea of, you are in a museum, you are looking at photographs. We really wanted people to just lift up off the ground a bit and step into this universe where the surface of the photograph becomes an entry to another plane from which we start to travel. You're in this purple world with these photographs and these big beautiful beings surrounding you with regalness. We wanted viewers to feel, "Wow, Deana's doing something different."

From Deana Lawson: Planes - Photos by Brian Forrest

From Deana Lawson: Planes - Photos by Brian Forrest

IJ: I found myself in the exhibition really taking time to look at tiny details. The image I remember the most was the couple, where the man was holding the woman from behind...

Meagan: Seagulls in Kitchen

Seagulls in the Kitchen, From Deana Lawson: Planes

Seagulls in the Kitchen, From Deana Lawson: Planes

IJ: Yes. There's this little toaster oven and lower to the ground there are cans of Spaghettios and Spam... There are these little hints about life which I found so fascinating in all of the photographs. Her choice to have one person as the protagonist but then, for instance, in Sons of Cush, you have a hand with cash coming in from the left side corner that one might easily miss because the eye is drawn to the young man looking directly at you while holding a baby.

MS: Deana is all about the detail. You know I think you've got the male gaze and the female gaze and Deana has actually said that what she wants to generate is the love gaze and the empathy gaze. I think that those details are all points for locking in memories like, "I had that toaster", "My grandmother had that plastic rose!"

IJ: I remember eating Spam!

MS: Yeah! And also, "I remember being held like that." You know what I mean? Those are all the things she's doing to say that this person is absolutely other from you and what links you are your shared experiences. You don't need to be or like this person in order to relate to them and in order to feel the agency that they feel. The other thing about Deana's pieces is that she doesn't' actually know the people and sometimes the people don't know each other. So those two lovers in Seagulls in Kitchen don't know each other.

IJ: Which makes the image so much more fascinating.

MS: And then as far as the poking out of the hand with cash, Deana is very deliberate is showing you what she wants to show you. You're looking at her view.

Sons of Cush from Deana Lawson: Planes - Photo by Sharon Mizota

Sons of Cush from Deana Lawson: Planes - Photo by Sharon Mizota

IJ: I felt that as I looked at that image. That sense of...there's a reason why she chose to leave that hand in the corner whereas some people would have been like, "No, it's extraneous. Crop it out."

MS: Yes. It all matters. You know she sits in between Jeff Wall's work on one end and Diane Arbus on the other end.

IJ: When we first sat down you were talking about your time spent at Frieze and that you did a couple of talks over this past weekend. You mentioned that the topic was a stretch in its reach or potential for discussion. I wanted to talk to you about that actually because sometimes I find these talks become very, very academic, which is fine, but not necessarily the most interesting way to spend an hour. What do you feel about artist talks, are they going the way of the dodo or...

MS: (laughing) Noooo, they're not. We do talks all the time at The Underground Museum and I just think...vibes is everything. (laughing) The question is, how are you creating the conditions for people to become active listeners? And also for the speakers to be open and vulnerable and sharing and generous speakers. One of the things that we always do is that we actually have a meal before. It's not a public meal, it's a meal that's about thirty to forty people in the back office and the two presenters that we'll be working with. It's their friends and our friends and making a space for having a relaxed time of eating and drinking so that when they go out onto the stage it's essentially a continuation of the conversation that they have just been having. It's not a performance of knowledge, it's...

IJ: Free flowing.

MS: Exactly. It's that free flow thing that we've already been engaging in. You know I saw this wonderful talk at Frieze with Sondra Perry and Cauleen Smith and it felt a little bit like that. I was bummed that, speaking of vibes, we were in this dark theatre and they were on stage and were made to appear as more of the performer, but it was really a cool conversation between two women.

You know, there's good talks and there's bad talks. It's a format that I don't think is going anywhere and I think it can be really interesting. Here's a really good example, the reason that the Sondra Perry and Cauleen Smith discussion was so enlightening and informative was because they weren't explaining their work.

They were explaining what they were interested in that informed(italic) the work. How they got to the form itself. They didn't have to do a re-explanation. I think that sometimes when artists are put in the position of having to tell-you-every-thing-about-their-work, then you're like, actually, just go to the gallery and look at my work or talk with somebody else about my work. Everything I've actually wanted to say, I've said in the work. I don't have anything more to say about it.

IJ: That reminds of this whole conversation around didactic text and how long they should be. Do you write this entire bible that's like, "Here, this is exactly what you need to know."?

MS: Yeah. I actually am the maker of all the didactic texts at The UM and I really love playing with the format. So, first and foremost, the entry wall text is, as you know, is the first barrier of entry to any exhibition. If you do not understand that text, you do not feel that this exhibition is for you. I mean, forget it, there's no getting back from that. And so, the texts that I write are always meant to be in conversation and dialogue with the reader.

With Noah's shows it's about acknowledging that there is no right answer because none of us know what he wanted to do with these shows. We just invite you to think about some things. The reason I selected Robin Coste Lewis to be in Water and Power is because I wanted no text at all. I just wanted a poem because I thought that the poem was as open as the light and space was open. It is as expansive as the literary form and as James Turrell's beam of light.

From Water & Power, James Turell - Images by Brian Forrest

From Water & Power, James Turell - Images by Brian Forrest

For Artists of Colour(, I took quotes from artists about what they thought about color and what they thought about art. I was thinking how is someone going to start to be in a relationship with Donald Judd? They come from south LA, it's a pretty far stretch, but if there's this very, very clear quote about what Donald Judd thinks about blue, I mean...we all think about blue! It's a way once again to connect people.

I know for a fact, many many artists, many many thinkers are left astray as far as why they're called in to talk and their not given the foundation and so their kind of like, "I dunno, I'll just say anything." as opposed to this is why you're here, this is what you should speak to and this is what you're going to be surrounded by.

IJ: It's surprising that this happens. The artists I've encountered welcome some sort of parameters.

MS: I think that some people believe that you shouldn't ever put constraints on an artist. But I think that the opposite of constraint is not parameters.

IJ: Yeah because they kind of constrain themselves at that moment. It's a weird thing that happens.

MS: Totally. I think parameters actually give you more freedom!

IJ: Me too. Kind of like, the less money you have... (laughing). It's a horrible parameter, but it actually works very well.

MS: Exactly.

IJ: Ok last question. You spoke about your relationship with Helen Molesworth and how she had a generosity of spirit. Women mentoring women, it's a rarity. Do you find that as well?

MS: I do, but just because it's rare doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I think about people like Helen, I think about people like Thelma Golden. You know Thelma Golden is somebody who, you don't even have to be working for her ever, she will literally come up to you at an event and just (say) "I'd like to tell you about this experience that I had as I witness you going through the same thing that I went through ten years ago. And this is what I did and I'm just going to leave you with that and I'm gonna go now." You know? Just wow!

IJ: That's amazing.

MS: It's people who are so incredibly assured of who they are in relation to everything that they do. (They show you that ) you should be the same way in relation to everything you do. It's a base understanding that we only have abundance in the world you know? It's not something that will ever have a limit to it. And so why shouldn't there be enough to go around and why shouldn't we share what we know because if you see a fellow traveler on your road and you guys are going in the same direction and you're on the same mission to do the same kind of work, we should all be doing it together.

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We would like to extend special thanks to Megan Steinman and the Underground Museum for this interview and also to the Ontario Arts Council, without which this interview would not have been possible.