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A headshot photo of Meg Onli. They have a light skin-tone. The sides of their head are shaven and they have long locs tied up into a bun. They are wearing a mutli-patterned button down shirt.

Season 3: Episode 4

Meg Onli

Maori talks with LA-based curator and writer Meg Onli, whose work attends to the intricacies of race and the production of space. She is the co-curator of the 2024 Whitney Biennial, previously served as the director and curator of the now-shuttered The Underground Museum in Los Angeles, and was prior to that the Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Meg tells Maori about growing up in LA, what exhibits transformed her, the curators that inspire her, and what pop culture she turns to at the end of a long day.

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A headshot photo of Meg Onli. They have a light skin-tone. The sides of their head are shaven and they have long locs tied up into a bun. They are wearing a mutli-patterned button down shirt.

Meg Onli is a curator and writer whose work attends to the intricacies of race and the production of space. Currently, she is the co-curator of the forthcoming 2024 Whitney Biennial with Chrissie Iles. Previously Onli was appointed the director and curator of Los Angeles’s Underground Museum and the Andrea B. Laporte Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Onli has curated the exhibitions Speech/Acts (2017), Colored People Time (2019), Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus is to be Successful (2021), and recently curated the retrospective Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation (2021) with Erin Christovale. Onli is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a 2014 Graham Foundation Grant; a 2019 Transformation Award from the Leeway Foundation, was the inaugural recipient of the Figure Skating Award in 2021; and a former Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow. In the summer of 2020, Onli founded the initiative Art for Philadelphia, which raised over $100,000 for community-led abolitionist organizations.


Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.

Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.

Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes

Producer — Kayla Lattimore

Associate Producer — Irit Reinheimer

Managing Producer — Alex Lewis

Executive Editor — John Myers

Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams

  • Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
  • This episode features additional music by Dumhi.
Show Notes

Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation

Chrissie Iles 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Getty Museum



The Hammer Museum at UCLA

Kara Walker

Jeff Koons

Ann Goldstein 

Meghan Markle

Tyra Banks

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Studio Ella 

Stephen Serrato

Shepard Fairey

Pat Manuel  

Garbage (band) 

Shirley Manson

Martine Syms

Karen Archey

Allison Glenn

Karen Patterson

Rachel Adams

Jamilee Lacey

Dr. Kellie Jones

Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 Exhibition

Senga Nengudi

David Hammons

Helen Molesworth

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s Exhibition

Warhol Foundation 

Susan Snodgrass 

ICA Philadelphia

Speech/Acts Exhibition

Anthony Elms 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Tiona Nekkia McClodden

A possum hissing

Amy Sadao

Kate Kraczon

Whitney Biennial 

Colored People Time: Mundane Futures Exhibition

Robert Chaney

Carolyn Lazard 

Erin Christovale

Carolyn Lazard: Long Take Exhibition

Underground Museum 

Art for Philadelphia

Terrence Nance: SWARM 

Marcia Tucker

Thomas “T” J. Lax 

Just Above Midtown (JAM) Exhibition 

Cecilia Alemani

Venice Biennale


No Human Involved Exhibition

Linda Goode Bryant 

Thelma Golden

Danielle A. Jackson

Taylor Renee Aldridge 

Rita Gonzalez 

Adrienne Edwards 

Naked and Afraid (Discovery, 2013-present)

Rockstar Games 

Red Dead Redemption

Abbott Elementary (created by Qunita Brunson, ABC, 2021-present)

Are You The One (MTV, 2014-present)

Lost (created by Jeffrey Lieber; J. J. Abrams; Damon Lindelof,  ABC, 2004-2010)

Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast (Helen Molesworth interviews Barbara Smith and Meg Onli)


[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.

You are listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host,  Maori Karmael Holmes. 

In this episode, I sat down with my immensely talented colleague and friend, Meg Onli. Meg is a curator and writer whose work focuses on the complexities of race and the production of space. Currently, she is the co-curator of the forthcoming 2024 Whitney Biennial with Chrissie Iles. Previously, Meg served as the director and curator of the now shuttered The Underground Museum in Los Angeles, and was the Andrea B. LaPorte associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Her exhibitions include Speech/Acts, Colored People Time, Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful, and she recently co-curated the retrospective Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation with Erin Christovale. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Creative Capital Warhol Foundation, Arts Writers Grant, the Transformation Award from the Leeway Foundation and the inaugural Figure Skating Prize. Besides her brilliant work in contemporary art, what I admire most about Meg is her laser focus on curating thoughtful and dynamic exhibitions that reflect her own experiences as a queer Black woman, the lack of which has fueled her passion. I had the pleasure of being in person with Meg for our conversation when I asked her about growing up in Gardena, California.


[00:01:54]Maori Karmael Holmes: Hi Meg.

[00:01:55] Meg Onli: Hi Maori.

[00:01:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: Welcome to Many Lumens.

[00:01:58] Meg Onli: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:01:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: So, you’re originally from Gardena, the South Bay Area, and can you talk about what life was growing up in Southern California?

[00:02:08] Meg Onli: Oh, I mean, I’m back in LA, which has been very odd after almost 20 years. But I grew up in Gardena, which is kind of a predominantly, or used to be predominantly a Japanese neighborhood, and so I grew up going to Japanese school when I was a kid. I did not retain any Japanese, but I would say my block in general was really California multicultural, and I think having worked on the Ulysses Jenkins retrospective and worked with an artist who was born and raised in California, in Los Angeles in the 1940s, it was really interesting to sort of see just very similar racial makeups. My neighborhood, although it was predominantly Japanese, it was also very Black, very Latinx, and also a Vietnamese population a little bit coming back from the war. But I also grew up in LA in the nineties, so it was a murder capital. The uprisings occurred. I went to school in Brentwood when Nicole Simpson was murdered, so I felt like there was a lot of these really large cultural touchstones that happened when I was in LA, and I think one thing that’s come up with Chrissie Iles and I have kind of talked about during the Biennial is, also what it’s meant to grow up in a city that was really violent at the time and to now be an adult and I think for me, I think I just looked back at LA at that time, and then I moved to Chicago and then I lived in Philadelphia. There’s also a certain amount of comfort that you end up having within urban spaces, but I think LA in the nineties was such a very specific cultural space, and if you’re not familiar with where Gardena is, it’s right on the edge of Compton, and so it’s Compton on one side, it’s Carson, it’s Torrance, and then you head into maybe about 20 minutes away, you have really affluent beach communities and so, it’s also really close to San Pedro, which is a huge port town as well, and so specific, but at the same time having this a kind of sprawl and so when I watch things like Snowfall and things like that, I recognize a lot of the places within it.

[00:04:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I grew up in Los Angeles, also a little bit older than you. And remember–– 

[00:04:14] Meg Onli: Lies!

[00:04:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s not lies! 

[00:04:18] Meg Onli: Oh my gosh.

[00:04:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: I remember in the eighties I was raised in West Hollywood is where my mother lived, which was relatively non-eventful and would go — I was babysat in South Central and sometimes I’d have to spend the night at my babysitter’s house, and just sort of remembering hearing gunshots and the ghetto birds and the helicopters and all of that, but every single day, and then when we moved to Atlanta in the early nineties, the soundscape was very different. It’s sort of being used to that kind of noise.

[00:04:50] Meg Onli: Oh, for sure. I mean, I remember being shortly after undergrad, I was with my girlfriend at the time and she was from Ohio, and we heard a gunshot in Oregon, and I rolled out of the bed and she sat up and I was just like, it was one of those very stark moments of where we had grown up and the soundscapes that you became accustomed to. And I think also just the surveillance and policing in Los Angeles. When I was working at the Underground Museum, you’d be sitting in the garden with anyone coming through and you would just have helicopters over all the time, and so to me, an emphasis is not that LA is a particularly violent place over others. There is some of that, but at the same time, it’s just a huge presence of the LAPD and that type of surveillance of Black and brown communities.

[00:05:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about what Young Meg wanted to do? What did you want to be?

[00:05:38] Meg Onli: A lesbian. I was a very butch child. I hope you have that image of me and my little cowboy getup as a kid. I mean, I wanted to be an artist. I loved art. I also loved Georgia O’Keefe. So I think the tie between art and lesbianism was very strong early on. I was a very queer child, and I often say that I grew up in a seemingly very queer household. We went to Pride parades, we went to West Hollywood for Halloween. A lot of my grandmother’s friends, I was raised by my grandmother and mother, and a lot of her friends were queer, and so for me, I was kind of surrounded by a lot of queer people and people identified as at the time as “cross-dressers” and I also grew up in a very white household at the same time, and so I think a very white queer upbringing is one of the things that I think a lot about my childhood, and then the other aspect of that was also growing up in, it was very important for my family that we grew up Catholic.

[00:06:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: They sent you to a Black church.

[00:06:47] Meg Onli: We did go to a Black Catholic Church in South Central, and so St. Bridget’s was a really big part of how I experienced Black culture as a child, and I think also just, it’s kind of weird to think about Catholic aesthetics are very strong, and I think at the same time, growing up in a Catholic Gospel church, there was a lot of Pentecostal and Baptist kind of inflections that were happening at the time. Both my parents wanted us to be in the choir, and so my brother and I joined and we’re both tone-deaf, and so it was incredibly embarrassing to have white parents and also be the tone-deaf kids in this choir.

[00:07:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: Were you taken to museums as a young person? Is that how you thought about art, is that how you discovered Georgia O’Keefe and decided you wanted be an artist, or were those separate things?

[00:07:36] Meg Onli: Yeah, no. I mean, I had a second grade teacher, Susie Newman, and she was very into art, but I think my very, very earliest memories were, I think my mom had enrolled me in an art class. I went to museums. I mean, I remember going to The Getty, LACMA, MOCA, the Hammer. I remember lots of those exhibitions that I saw as a kid, and I think some of it is being bussed as a child. I think I was part of a magnet school, and so they brought us to some of those things. I had a very, very active parent. My mom was young when she had me, and she was present at every school function, took us to everything and my grandmother. And so, I distinctly remember being at LACMA with my grandmother, looking at a Jeff Koons piece. I remember seeing Kara Walker’s work with my mom at some point. There’s times that I look back now and I’m like, I was going to MOCA when Anne Goldstein was curating there. Just really fantastic curators that you had a chance to learn from. I wanted to be an artist to begin with, and I went to an all girls Catholic school, and then I got kicked out of it. And-

[00:08:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: 

Why did you get kicked out?

[00:08:42] Meg Onli: 

I just was a really bad student. I just didn’t care about school. But I went to the same school that Meghan Markle went to, and Tyra Banks and it’s like a prep school, and so you have to excel or else they kick you out because you bring down their grades and averages. But I ended up going to a public school, high school, my last couple years, and when I was there, it actually had a print department, and so I got very into printmaking, bookmaking, all the things I still do now is really a big part of my life. And so I worked in print shops for years — this is in the early aughts — and soon after that was a really huge Andy Warhol show at MOCA, and I remember getting very invested in pop art and screen printing, but I also realize now that, Maori knows this, I work very closely with Studio Ella, who’s an amazing design group, and Steven Sorato and I have recently figured out that we were actually in really similar networks in the early 2000s. I was working at a Gallery 6 space. He was working with Shepherd Fairey, and we had done some collaborations with each other, and so Steven and I actually probably had these interactions when we were 19, 20, something like that.

[00:09:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, that’s amazing.

[00:09:49] Meg Onli: Yeah. I always feel very embarrassed to say I got into art through street art, but I’d been looking, especially with the art I love now, I’m like, “Oh my God.” But yeah, I loved art from a very, very, very early age. And I think I was also just a very visual person. I struggled a lot with reading, and so I often say that I didn’t start reading for myself, by myself, until I was in my early twenties. And my grandmother read to me, I had a lot of learning disabilities when I was growing up. And for me, I think I just had a very, not enhanced, but I think for me, visual pleasure was really important to me.

[00:10:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah––You and your brother Pat are really, really close in age and affect, and you’re both queer leaders in your field. You’re into tattoos. Were you always close?

[00:10:41] Meg Onli: Yeah. Yeah, my brother, I would say that I think my brother probably identifies more as trans than queer these days. But yeah, I mean, I love my brother. I think if you know me you know that I have an absolute love of my baby brother. He’s 19 months younger than me. Us together as kids, we were just inseparable. We hung out in high school in a friend group together. We were very rough and tumble kids together. We would break toys and just, I don’t mean this chaos, but I would say we’re both fire signs and there is a lot of energy between us, but I also think my brother and I are 19 months apart. So my grandmother and her sister Joan were 18 months apart, and her sister passed away when my grandmother was 13, and so it was always, I would say Pat’s and my love for each other is actively cultivated. We work on our love, we talk to each other. It’s very rare that I don’t talk to my brother in a day, but it’s work. It’s work being in relationship with someone and my grandmother really set early on for us that our love and our bond for each other was absolutely unbreakable. There was nothing more special than that and that no one should ever come between you. So I think there’s ways in which we were, family-wise, sort of forced together, but I also think in retrospect and through lots of therapy, we’re the two Black people in our family, Black, queer, trans. I think there’s a way in which-

[00:12:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: And incredibly successful, both of you.

[00:12:10] Meg Onli: Thank you. I think there’s a way in which we, of course, we’re going to be always, I’m gripping my fists and shaking them, so close, so deep. My brother is just, I always say my brother taught me how to love someone. I get weepy when I talk about him. He’s just my favorite person, and I think to have someone in your life that you know will do anything for you and go anywhere, anywhere I was in the world, I could call my brother and he’d be there for me. My brother is just one of the most outstanding people I know in my life.

[00:12:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: I won’t take that personally. No, I’m just kidding. Thank you for sharing. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to go to college and study art and how your family responded to that and were they encouraging? Was that just a choice you made on your own? I know for a lot of working class families, at least in mine, and many of my peers, our parents didn’t know a lot about college, so we were on our own to figure it out, and so I don’t know what that was like for you.

[00:13:11] Meg Onli: Oh, totally. I mean, I think my family was shocked I wanted to go to college, so maybe — you know this about me, but most people do not. But a lot of my teen life was oriented around the band Garbage.

[00:13:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: I do know this.

[00:13:25] Meg Onli: I loved Garbage and I have a Garbage tattoo. I saw them a bunch of times and I’m so psyched Shirley Manson follows me on Instagram, and when she likes my posts, I still get giddy. I’m still just like, “Oh my God!” I love this band, and so I really thought I was going to be a roadie. Although I liked art, I never saw this as a future for myself, and I often say, I don’t know, I think there’s a way in which I found myself through curating and not my career, but my practice as a cultural producer. And so once I started thinking about college, SCIC was like the number one, you go to these things and you’re like, it’s the number one ranked school. I think it was the only school I applied to. And also you didn’t have to turn in or maybe it was very low SAT scores. And I had not even taken the SAT, so I didn’t even take, you didn’t have to do the math portion. I sat there and I didn’t do it. I just was like, “I’m not doing this.” And so I think that sold me. Obviously not, as you mentioned before, not having a family who had gone through the process of, my uncle had gone to college, but that was about it. I took on debt that I shouldn’t have taken on. I’m very thankful for my education at SCIC, in certain ways. I think that education would be a lot more rigorous than what it is, but I really found out who I was intellectually, and I also found myself, I think the most important aspect of that is I found myself in a community of artists, and so I often cite that my first year I was in the dorms with Martine Syms on the same floor as me and Martine and I became friends. The amount of people who have come through that space is, even just curatorially, like Karen Archey, who’s at the Stedelijk, Alison Glenn was there, Karen Patterson went to SCIC. I mean, there’s Rachel Adams. There’s so many people who have kind of gone through that space. Jamilee Lacy, who’s now the head of the Frye. There’s so many people that you can just keep naming that have gone through that school. And so for me, it just immersed me within an artist community sort of immediately, which has really shaped my practice. I think I am very artist centered and artist, at least trying to put artist ideas forward. And I think going to that school kind of allowed me to do that.

[00:15:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: 

What made the transition from wanting to be an artist? Did something happen that made you say, “Maybe I’m no good at this?” Or did you fall in love with curating and decide you when to pursue that path instead?

[00:15:43] Meg Onli: Yeah, there’s two things. One, when you go to school with people like Martine Syms, you realize you suck. It was just like, you can ask anyone from an early age, you knew Martine was going to be great. And I think seeing that, I just was like, “I don’t have that.” I don’t, making art is incredibly hard. I mean, to take conceptual ideas and form them into an object, if you’re an object based artist or if you’re making film, the amount of respect and deference I have for artists is very, very high, because it’s very easy to think you could do something but you didn’t. And I think there’s a place for me that I’m just like, “Wow, that is very complicated place to work.” That being said, Kellie Jones changed my life. And so Kellie Jones is Now Dig This! This is about 2012, 2013. I see that show, and I think three to four years later I’m a curator, I have a curatorial gig. And now dig this. I think there’s a three shows I often cite as the aha moment, Now Dig This! Was the very first one that I was just like-

[00:16:49] Maori Karmael Holmes:  Was it because it was LA based artist or what was the?

[00:16:52] Meg Onli: I think I walked into that show and I remember thinking, I spent, I think I was like $50,000 in debt from SCIC and I was like, how do I not know about these artists? How did I spend all this money and not know about — I knew who some of the artists were, but I didn’t know who Ulysses Jenkins was. I don’t even know if I knew Senga Nengudi at the time. I knew David Hammonds and that was about it. And so I think for me, the curator’s role in facilitating between an audience and artist, but I also think uncovering and teaching. I think I mentioned earlier, struggling with reading and I think for me, understanding that there are spacial practices, that there are all of these other practices that we can have to make sense of the things in our life, and I think for me, working curatorially and creating exhibitions, working within space, thinking about theory in relationship to space, curating is incredibly psychological. All of those things to me just made me realize that there was this whole other skillset that I had not been taught to use. And I think seeing Now Dig This! I remember walking away being like, “Oh, that was very important.” And I didn’t know if I liked everything, but it was something that just really stuck with me. And then I’d say the other show that just had such a huge impact on me was Helen Molesworth’s This Will Have Been, and I saw that exhibition, I think at the time I had been a fellow, so I pretty much saw Kellie’s show. I was starting to write about art, and I applied for an art writer’s grant through the Warhol Foundation for a blog I used to have called Black Visual Archive. I did not receive the award the first year, but I got a mentorship with Susan Snodgrass, who’s a Chicago based art critic and professor, and Susan and I just got to work. We started writing short form texts. She would take me to curatorial walkthroughs, and I remember seeing Helen Molesworth give a tour of This Will Have Been, and I often say, Helen and I are friends now, and Helen was just like, you are the queer person in the room. And there was this way in which she spoke to me. And understanding, the two curators I’m talking about are some of the best curators ever. It’s like to have a chance-

[00:19:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can I also add that they’re both Tauruses and I love that that’s who changed your life.

[00:19:09] Meg Onli: Tauruses has changed my life. This is true. This is very true. Yeah, Tauruses for sure. I would say the Taurus women in my life have really made a major impact on me and including you, Maori. But I think seeing both of those shows, watching both of them when you think about both those exhibitions, you understand the way that they could produce very complex ideas through space. These are both more historical surveys in certain ways, but I think for me, I was really interested in scale contextualization. When you understand the 1980s, when you approach the 1980s in art, it’s sort of seen as a really vapid time. It’s not, but the brief art history blurb you might have is very “Jeff Koons. It’s about consumerism.” And it’s much more complex than that. And so I think for me, seeing Helen curate, but also Helen is just an amazing storyteller. And so for me, having a chance to see a person who has such an effortless comfort with art and who can just very casually tell you a story, and Helen is a great storyteller, I think those things really changed what I wanted to do. It was a very precious secret to me. I did not tell anyone I wanted to be a curator. Until I got my job at the ICA, no one knew I wanted to be a curator. And I think for me, it was very much like this, I’d never done it before, and so I didn’t curate until I came to the ICA and I met you.

[00:20:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh my goodness, I love that. So Speech/Acts is-

[00:20:36] Meg Onli: Speech/Acts was my first show. I never curated a show. And I think for me, I knew that the thing I wanted to do required money. I knew very quickly, and I think some of this is also the, I really valued my thoughts and ideas and not saying at all that people didn’t, but I think for me, I knew it required money to pay artists to commission work, and more than anything, I wanted to do publications.

[00:21:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:21:04] Meg Onli: So I have this really long history of working in publications and so, I knew I wanted to do that and when I got to the ICA, I pitched actually a very small show. I pitched a little project space show, and Anthony Elms, the chief curator at the time, said, “Think bigger. I think you should think bigger.” And I thought bigger. That show couldn’t happen because it was already, it was a solo show and it was already happening. And one day I was sitting at home and I looked at my poetry collection and I just started thinking about all the poetry shows that had opened in the past year or so. I will definitely say I’m a student of curatorial practices. I’m a person that loves reading about curators, I love studying them, I love talking to them. And so I realized there was this very large gap in thinking about Black experimental poetics and how important poetry is for us, and yet at the same time, you were really seeing it through a very, very white lens that was being presented at the time. And so Speech/Acts, Martine was the start of that. And I just figured, “well, if Martine’s in, I’m going to get other people to do it.” So I called Martine and she said yes. And I think it was the first time when I made that show, it was the first time I could actually work within space. But I think the success of that show, before the show even opens, it gets blurbed in The New York Times. And I think that triggered just so much imposter syndrome for me. And so I just was like, well, it’s the artist that made this show. It’s the architecture, it was all these other things. It wasn’t me. And a lot of the artists, Kameelah Janan Rasheed is just an amazing artist. And she was always like, “You brought this together. You did this.” Tiona Nekkia McClodden incredibly supportive and was like, “This isn’t just us, this is also you.” And I think for me, my anxiety really played out, which moved me then into my next show and kind of creating some structures for myself to prove to myself in certain ways that I was capable as a curator. And so I love Speech/Acts. It’s like my firstborn, and I say that as a firstborn. And I think for me, it also just produced a lot of anxiety for me at the same time.

[00:23:09] Maori Karmael Holmes:  Yeah. Thank you for also sharing that. I feel like a lot of people for some reason over the last couple of years will say to me, “Do you get anxiety?” And I’m like, “Did you wake up?” You know what I mean? I’m just like, so many of us deal with it. And I think people don’t understand that a lot of people are going through it and how you sort of manage it, it looks different.

[00:23:32] Meg Onli: But I did with shrooms the entire time of that show. I microdosed shrooms the entire time during the install. Yeah, I mean you know this, ’cause I would talk about it at work and I remember our chief preparer came up to me and was like, “I’ve never seen a curator be so calm during install.” And I was like, “Shrooms buddy. That has kept me, microdosing shrooms three times a week kept me really calm.” But I think there’s success, a tension. It’s always that tension between, and I think you and I have talked about this of— You are highly successful. You have built an empire and look at you, you’re just giving me this look. You’re an incredibly successful person. But also the challenges that come from that and the self-doubt, the anxiety, the want for respect and attention, but also the like, “Oh my God, leave me alone. I need space.” And I often describe myself, if you Google a possum in a hole hissing is often how I describe myself in my relationship to accolades and attention is I want people to pay attention to me and respect me, but I’m also like, “Just get away. I need to do my own thing.”

[00:24:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:24:41] Meg Onli: It’s hard. And a lot of times people don’t teach you how to navigate that. And I think it becomes compounded when you’re also have multiple identity markers that are desirable for your field and what it means for you to represent those things.

[00:24:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, I mean me being at the ICA as Director of Public Engagement was also a shift for me in terms of my own practice because I’d always wanted to work in museums, and I interned at a couple in undergrad, but was really turned off by the pay and the culture.

[00:25:16] Meg Onli: The pay is so bad.

[00:25:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: But I kept wanting to be in the spaces and so, even in doing different projects in other jobs, I always found myself back, at least making projects or collaborations with these institutions which led to that job. And I think you showing up six months later, and I really do think you inspired me so much to think about what was possible even for me, and it’s just incredible to me that you were just, I didn’t realize how much you were starting out till just now. I just assumed you had done smaller things. So that’s amazing.

[00:25:49] Meg Onli: Well, I think one of the things that’s really beautiful about you and I and our friendship is, we’re both — it feels like we’re having such a serious conversation when I’m like, you and I are both actually usually teasing each other the entire time. And so, we showed up at this institution under the leadership of Amy Sado, a woman of color, and there are very few women of color within directorial positions in this country and I would even say just generally within Western culture in museums, and immediately you and I both have this energy of, “Let’s just fucking do this.”

[00:26:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:26:26] Meg Onli: There’s this, I remember talking to Kate Kraczon, who is the associate curator at the time when I first got there, and Kate was amazing, took me under her wing, and Kate always would tease that I was always polite, but I often didn’t necessarily wait for someone to ask me me for something. I just would ask. I would say, “Hey, can I do this?” And one of the amazing things that we did for Speech/Acts is we did 14 programs for that show, which I can never imagine doing ever again. Oh my god, so many programs. But our reading group, the performances, there was just a way in which you and I had so much gusto to come in and do this together and what did it mean to collaborate? And I think for me, it really spoiled me in working in museums because I just had such [a] equal thought partner to jump in, and you also immersed me immediately into Philadelphia, and I don’t think anyone else at the ICA has ever had someone say, “Hey, I’m going to introduce you to all of these people within Philly.” Coming back here, I love this city so much. I love, love, love Philadelphia. And I think a lot of that is because you really immediately introduced me to so many contacts and so many people and so many cultural workers and the Black arts dinners we were doing and hosting people, and I think there was just this real energy that it’s kind of hard to describe but certain spaces and you felt that at ICA the other night during the opening. And it’s like that is the energy that sort of happens when you are in the room and I get to help. I think there’s a way in which we come together. It’s really, really beautiful, and it’s what I see from BlackStar. Being at BlackStar, I feel really similarly. It’s like these spaces are incredibly alienating and I often say I am not comfortable in museums, and if I’m not comfortable in museums, what does that mean when I’m the curator? And you have been able to create these spaces that I feel so comfortable in talking about anxiety. I hate public speaking. Most people don’t know that.

[00:28:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: No one would know because you show up in all your Sag-ness.

[00:28:33] Meg Onli: I know. I’m just so afraid. It’s bad. I think one of the things is I really stress often, and I remember having a conversation with Martine Syms about what it meant to be on stage and to look out and only see white faces, and I think so much about Black Star and how comfortable I am in that space and what it means to be in that audience, and that it’s so rare.

[00:28:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:28:54] Meg Onli: It is very, very, very rare. And so I just want to also highlight that of the things that you’ve built and it’s pretty amazing.

[00:29:01 Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.

[00:29:02] Meg Onli: For those who can’t see, Maori’s blushing.

[00:29:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: I’m wearing blush. 

[00:29:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: You are listening to Many Lumens. We’ll be back after a short break.

[29:18] Midroll: BlackStar Projects celebrates and uplifts Black, brown and Indigenous artists. We produce the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen, and other projects creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive. Learn more and support our work at

[00:29:42] Maori Karmael Holmes:  You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now back to our interview with Meg Onli…

I want to talk a little bit about the shows overall. You just mentioned Speech/Acts and what led to it, but I want you to talk a little bit about what I have seen in your shows is the artist in you and also your love of artists, but also your love of architecture, and I also feel like the way that you treat crews and your respect for them is so evident and it’s so much love and I feel like your shows then are better because of that love. And I just want to know if you could talk about arranging objects in space and how you approach setting up the show. Once the idea, you’ve gotten the funding, now we’re going to press go and it’s install. What is that process like?

[00:20:36] Meg Onli:  I appreciate you saying that. I feel like the crew are such a huge part of making an exhibition together. I think maybe stepping back from, there’s so much that happens between the first idea to when you get to install, but I would say the one thing that feels like a very true through line from the start to the very end is I really live in a place of comfort of not knowing. And I think for me it is one of my real strengths is that I don’t mind being wrong and I’m wrong often.

[00:31:10] Maori Karmael Holmes:  Yes, yes you are. No, I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.

[00:31:14] Meg Onli:

I think for me, it’s interesting working on the Whitney Biennial right now, because it’s such a wild, you have 11 months to put a show together. It is so fast, and I feel like there’s very few people understand the pace that it takes to make a show like this and it’s very easy to critique, but at this point I’m just like, “how did I ever critique these shows not really understanding what it takes to make them?” But you have to have this comfort in your skill and those around you, and trust. And so for me, I’ve often made shows often saying that I approached them with really open arms in a lot of ways. Colored People Time was not called Colored People Time, it was not about Colored People Time until way later into the process. It was called Of Black Beings and Robert Chaney, bless his heart, called it “Black Beans” over and over and over again, and I thought I was going to lose my mind hearing a show called “Black Beans” for a year, and I had those sub-chapters built. It was a show clearly about Colored People Time, but I did not see that. And it wasn’t until I talked to Cameron Rawling and Carolyn Lazard that I realized that. And so for me, I think there’s a way of making exhibitions that are very art historically argumentative and it comes in as argument driven. And I know some people feel like I make argument driven shows. I don’t feel that way. Maybe they do come out in that way in the end, but I think I’m working much more associatively, and so I’m not there to argue a point. I’m there to arrange objects and works and create a conversation, and I think part of maybe generosity you’re speaking to or what happens is the crew, the people you work with, you as a collaborator, my thought partners, all of these people, I ask for a lot of opinions. During install it is I asked everyone for their opinion. I had a chance of working with Emily and Scott on this Carol Lazard show and what they did with the lighting, it was three days of lighting that show, and it really makes or breaks the show. And so for me it’s also, you might be asking someone to do a repetitive action over and over and over again. And we have to have a very clear understanding of what the labor we’re asking people to do and honor that that labor is what makes my shows look really good. And so I want people to feel really good because they’re doing things that I’m not doing. I can’t have my shows without other people. And I think that hopefully comes across. Aesthetically, I would say I care about beauty, which is such a controversial thing to say, and I don’t want to go into the depths of the complications of beauty, but I love an elegant hang. I love the psychological space of the museum. How do you move people through it? How do you draw someone close? What is the choreography? I think there are a lot of things that are also just instinctually, I’m very lucky to have that skillset that I can think very rigorously and conceptually, but I would say also maybe 40, 50% of my hangs in a show, if I’m doing a group show, which is more dominant of the curator to make that decision over individual artists, a lot of that is instinctual, and so I feel very thankful that I have that, and a lot of it is because I’ve spent a lot of time looking. I would say more than anything, I’ve spent a lot more time in my career looking at exhibitions and that’s more important to me than reading about them.

[00:35:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Sort of in this line of discussion, something that you just talked about in your artist talk with Carolyn Lazard this past Saturday, and it’s something I’ve heard you talk about in the past. It’s actually something that my mother loves that you do. It’s like you’re in the institution and you’re like, “The shit sucks.”

[00:35:30] Meg Onli: Oh yeah.

[00:35:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: But in a constructive way, you’ve also committed to working in museums. How can museums change? Are they supposed to change or are we just supposed to disrupt them?

[00:35:42] Meg Onli: I think oftentimes I talk about being very interested in the mess of the museum and for me, you asked me kind of earlier, what does it mean to arrange objects in space? And I think my entire career is going to be consumed with this idea of what has it meant for us historically to have been considered objects, and for me to arrange objects in space. It’s a very odd-

[00:36:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: Us as Black people.

[00:36:04] Meg Onli: As Black people, but also as women. I mean I think there’s lots of ways that you can sort of, I think first and foremost as Black people, but I think there’s lots of people who have been deemed objects throughout time. And I think for me it’s a very interesting career to be able to think through those challenges and what surrounds the politic of objectivity and that history within space. And so for me, I often say I’m really disinterested in changing museums. I think there’s a place where, and I don’t mean that in a way that is at all disregarding all of the amazing work that organizers, cultural producers, administrators, artists have done. It is just, if you look in the history of museums, these are institutions in general. It’s like-

[00:37:00 Maori Karmael Holmes: They’re existence.

[00:37:01] Meg Onli: They’re existence and what the ground is. And I often thinking about the terroir of a space, it is very interesting to me. I like the pigpen. I like the mess. I love the mess and I love friction. I think for me that kind of tension and friction that can occur is really fruitful for my practice. I’m currently at a place in my life, and I think a lot of this I can safely say, I think being part of watching the Underground Museum close, and being part of that, I think I’m now a year out from that, and I can say that that process, watching that happen, how could that not change me as a person? And it has profoundly changed me as a person. Being outside of the Underground Museum, not as its co-director, I love that space. There is no other space like the Underground Museum. I think people look at me and my identity markers as a visibly queer Black person. It’s the assumption that I’m here to change the museum. I’m not interested in investing that time in every institution. I’m interested in making my work and doing my shows, and hopefully supporting the people that I really want to support. But I think for me, I don’t have that in me and I also really feel resentful that there would be an expectation that I would do that anymore. And I think you and I did a lot of work and there’s a lot of people who have done work at the ICA in Philadelphia. I think giving to a space is a lot. My work is enough. I don’t want to give anymore. I don’t really want to. And I honestly think white people need to step up and do that work. Doing a show is enough work. That is, just looking at the audience that came on Friday, that is work. That is changing aspects of who comes to the museum. But it’s for me to think that is enough. What we did, what you do, what I do, that is enough. And I think for me, I don’t know. You get a bit of not resentment or hostility or heat from me, but I think there’s a place where I just feel very differently at the place I am in my life right now, and I think for me I’m just kind of, I really want to make shows. I really want to make books. Museums need to change, but I don’t think that’s the labor of marginalized people necessarily to do, and if people want to take on that work, I honor that. I support that. I think it’s incredible for people to do that. I just think we can work in concert together and that I can’t do multiple things at the same time.

[00:40:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, that’s totally fair. You spoke earlier about seeing Now Dig This curated by Dr. Kelly Jones being an aha moment for you, and I heard a young museum professional say a couple days ago that seeing Speech/Acts change their trajectory. And I imagine that’s true for many people. Are there other intellectuals that continue to impact your work now just sort of even a decade later? Or are there people that you would recommend that listeners to this think about if they’re interested in curation?

[00:41:14] Meg Onli: Oh my God. I mean I think there’s so many people and I think it’s one of those things that’s, those aha moments can also occur for things that are in the past. So I think studying past curators, I think of Marsha Tucker. I’ve like studied Marsha Tucker shows, and you can have those kind of aha moments in looking back at exhibitions. I think T Lax’s recent JAM show, I think that was an aha moment for a lot of people. I think there’s lots of people making work that allow you to shift your perspective, and it’s one of the reasons I believe in curating. I think Cecilia [Alemani]’s recent Venice Bienniale, when you see that install, that is a person who can work at a scale. I remember talking to lots of curators about that show and there’s lots of way in which the arsenale is set up very similar to the Highline and understanding a person who has a command of space. Again, thinking about the psychology of something, and obviously this is a privilege to be able to travel around the world and see exhibitions and talk about them, but I think there is lots of people doing fantastic things. So I also just want to say what it also means to be taking care of in an institution is a full other thing, and what it means to support people while they’re doing their work and navigating and working on projects and thinking about someone like Adrienne Edwards. Adrienne to me has just been so fantastic in the work that they’ve done and the care that they’ve given to me. I feel really, really thankful. And also just to say that all of these people are women and the majority of women who have greatly affected the field, supported me, supported others. It does feel like there’s this, I don’t want to say huge gender disparity, but it’s interesting to sort of see who’s in those types of roles of support.

[00:43:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: This might be controversial to ask, so I will, but do you believe anyone can be a curator?

[00:43:10] Meg Onli: Becoming a curator has a lot of limitations and I think it has been structurally created to keep people out from curating. I think the pay is often deplorable. The pay is really, really bad and so certain people can afford to.

[00:43:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: The assumption is you’re married to a hedge fund manager.

[00:43:31] Meg Onli: Yeah. And no diss to my friends who are.

[00:43:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Mine neither. I mean, I’m looking for one.

[00:43:39] Meg Onli: I think there’s an assumption that you are of a certain class in order to do that. And I will say that I made less money curating than I did running a print shop pre-master degree.

[00:43:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:43:50] Meg Onli: But I did it also because I have this just drive to be able to do it. Do I think everyone can curate? I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really thought about before. I think Bell Hooks talks about that the Black home is the first place in which we curate to see ourselves. And so I think in that realm, I do think everyone has a place to curate. And what does it mean to prioritize visuality within the spaces that we’re in? And I say visuality because I don’t want to get solely locked into this idea of representation, and the figure. I guess yeah, in certain ways, I think everyone should try it. I think we lack being taught how to work spatially. It’s really lacks within our education system. It’s one of those things that for me, having learning disabilities, I really could not figure out. I thought for a very long time that I was dumb. I think for me, I was always like, “Oh, I’m not as smart as my brother, or I don’t understand things or oh, I failed and retook this class again.” For me, I really struggled, and I remember one of the first things that when my family saw Speech/Acts and I have a very supportive family. My aunt and uncle are out, my grandmother came out, my brother, everyone showed up. And I think in the end I remember my mom being like, “Did we ever expect this? Did we expect…?” It was unexpected because I had a very hard time processing the things I was learning. And so for me, I actually think more people should, whether it’s curating or making art, I think more people should be able to work spatially and figure out how objects relate in space, whether it’s through interior architecture, design, things like that. And so I don’t know if the sense of focusing on curating necessarily, but I do think that processing ideas through space feels very important to me because I think there’s lots of people who maybe just haven’t figured out that is a way that they can learn.

[00:45:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: We’ve talked a lot about how passionate and serious you are about curation and museums and the art world, and I know that you’re an avid reader, but I’m just curious, what kind of popular culture do you turn to when you want to turn your brain off?

[00:46:09] Meg Onli: I consume a lot of popular culture. First off, when [inaudible 00:46:13] closed, I think I watched 14 seasons of Naked and Afraid. I travel all the time right now and if you’re with me and my girlfriend knows this, I love watching just basic TV. I love turning it on and just being like, “What is there?” And that’s how I got into Naked and Afraid was with my brother. We were drunk and we were in Vegas and I was like, “This show is…” Speaking of white tomfoolery. That is some of the dumbest shoot ever. Naked on an island. I mean obviously it’s fake, but that is hell for me, not wearing clothes outdoors. I’m a huge video game fan. I play tons of video games. I love rockstar games. I love Red Dead Redemption. I think part of my job is being able to talk about a breadth of things, and that includes what the new novel is, what podcasts are. A lot of my job is talking to other people and relating to them and I don’t mean to sound like a psychopath and that I’m studying this, but it makes my job a lot easier being up on pop culture in order to talk to people. But I also get recs from people of things to watch. But I would say I love Abbott Elementary. Oh my God, I love that show so much. I love any show that really enforces this heteronormative idea that your forever person is out there. And so I love Are You The One? I love any show in which they tell drunk 20-year olds that their forever person is here and you just have to drink and sleep and find this person. I find that stuff very entertaining. What?

[00:47:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: No, it’s great. Is there anything you want to try your hand at next? Or is this it?

[00:47:55] Meg Onli: Is this it? God? I think beyond curating, I mean Dog, I want to live. I want to enjoy my life. I want to relax. I don’t see myself moving into other things. To me, I feel so fulfilled. Ever since I curated Speech/Acts I’ve said I could get hit by a bus and I’d be absolutely happy with my life. I think to me, I found the thing that makes sense for me, which is exhibition making and making books and, I think now I’m just in a place where, I think a lot of us are in the midst of whatever we are in this aspect of the pandemic is, I want to enjoy my time with my loved ones. I want to enjoy my downtime. I want to read. I think I make killer espresso and cappuccinos now and I want to just enjoy.

[00:48:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: You also got an incredible wine aerator.

[00:48:44] Meg Onli: I thank you for that birthday gift. I love wine. I love love decadence and food and I want to enjoy myself. And I think it’s less about what I want to try in the sense of career-wise or what I want to try. I think I want to try to be at peace with who I am, and really I feel very wooy again. I just want to, I’m in love and I want to-

[00:49:12] Maori Karmael Holmes:  You are.

[00:49:13] Meg Onli: I want to love and be in love and wake up and not feel this rush. And maybe the one thing to say is that one of the things that I often, you look back at history and you’re like, “Why didn’t they do this? Or why, where did this fail?” And I think in the very recent history, I wonder where we as American workers did not change our work schedules. How did we fail in not working less? And there was this way that the pandemic, as horrible as it was, having that moment, this very weird moment where what are you going to do when you think you might die? Or people around you are dying? And I watched Lost. I watched Six seasons of Lost. It was very odd. I’d already seen the show. I don’t know why I returned to that or what it meant to seek comfort through entertainment, but I wasn’t thinking about how once we started getting back into working, the hyper productivity just increased. It was like you could work even more. And I think we’re in this place of trying to figure out what that hybrid schedule is, which is still to maximize your productivity, and I think there’s a place for me where I feel a huge reaction to that, and I want to do my job really well. I wanted to make my shows. And it’s not about stretching myself further, and it’s also really about enjoying the time that I have with the people that I have. And I think that has been a really major reorientation for myself from when you and I first met, it was about creating a career for myself, and now I feel like I have the comfort of enjoying my career, enjoying the things that I do, but also I want to have a glass of wine and chill and sit outside. Soft life.

[00:51:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think that’s the way to close the show.

[00:51:06] Meg Onli: Thank you so much.

[00:51:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.


It’s now time for our brand new segment, “Ask Maori,” where our audience is given the chance to ask me, Maori Karmael Holmes, about navigating the film world, artistic practice, traveling, tips and tricks for picking a festival outfit, or anything else you would like to ask. Here’s this week’s question.

[00:51:31] Mariam: Today’s question is from Zoe. Zoe asked, what is the role of film and television in fostering hope for a better future, and what films make you hopeful?

[00:51:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: I mean, I feel like it’s clear for me that film and television in the way that they are — attack us multiple senses, really literally shift how we see the world and how we take in new information and how we process difference. And so they have a really important role in being as representative as possible of what’s possible or what actually exists. So I think the future that we want to see, our film and television needs to look like that and needs to represent that. And in terms of what films make me hopeful, I’m actually really here for this moment in sitcoms that look like Benetton ads. It’s kind of corny and it’s kind of cheesy that on every single one there’s a non-binary character and there’s a South Asian character and there’s a character from another country, but then what’s also great about that is that that is how our lives actually look, and that is how, for people whose lives don’t look like that, they’re beginning to see that as typical, and that is such a small thing, but really, really important that I don’t even think we can process until we are 10 years into seeing our ridiculous sitcoms being intentional about the people in them. And then I think in particular, ones like Ted Lasso that are about just human goodness and kindness and generosity, I’m really, really exposing my cheesy side, but it’s making me hopeful.


[00:53:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: 

To keep up with more of Meg Onli’s work, you can follow her on Instagram @Monastictrio. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Row Home Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes:. This episode was produced by Kayla Latimore. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer, and Zoe Greggs. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Lil Dave” Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave. This episode features Music by Dumhi. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show. 

Sending you light and see you next time.