Art is alive and well at Denver’s Leon Gallery. The small, storefront space in the city’s Uptown neighborhood has a unique and appealing way of doing business. One month it will show a star, such as Diego Rodriguez-Warner or Laura Shill, and the next month deliver a complete surprise by giving a promising newcomer a platform.
Leon treats them all equally, and that gives it an important place in the region’s art eco-system. Artists get a lot of freedom to transform the space, and the risks usually — but not always — pay off. There’s just enough unpredictability to keep things interesting.
The other key to its success is director Eric Nord, who has been there since it opened in 2011 and ushered Leon through the ups and downs that all small galleries have to endure to survive. We asked him a few questions.
Q. When I walk into Leon Gallery, I am often surprised by what I see. How do you choose exhibitions?
A. Well, I am always on the hunt for artists who surprise me. I’m drawn to artists who have a unique perspective, a different way of looking at the world, or the issues of contemporary life.
I am always impressed with artists who are somehow able to express the undercurrents of our human existence, the things we all sense and feel, but haven’t quite been able to articulate in conscious thought. Artwork that resonates in some meaningful way, I guess.
Q. Can you tell us about Leon’s mission? First, its artistic and community mission.
A. Leon’s primary mission is to nurture and support emerging and underrepresented artists, as well as providing exploratory space for established artists to develop ideas that venture beyond their existing practice.
We are a gallery that provides a safe environment for risk-taking, a platform for unproven potentiality, a home for the kind of art that struggles to find acceptance in the more structured and result-oriented commercial spaces and committee-driven institutions.
Q. Now, the operating philosophy. Leon transformed from a commercial gallery to a nonprofit a few years ago. How has that made exhibiting art easier?
A. Though first opening our doors in August 2011 as a for-profit gallery, Leon became a nonprofit in July 2018.
The transition has allowed us to focus more readily on our core mission, and what we believe we have always excelled at, namely, amplifying the voices and visions of artists who operate outside of the expected or already established. Like our motto states, “Outliers Change The World.”
Q. And how has it made it more challenging? Are you constantly searching for support like other nonprofits?
A. Nonprofit arts organizations are always struggling to ensure consistent financial support, regardless of their size. Having previously worked at two of the most important performing arts organizations in the world, the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I know first-hand that the process of identifying and securing funding begins anew every single year. It’s a neverending cycle, and a constant challenge.
Q. How important are sales to the gallery?
A. While our nonprofit status has alleviated some of the pressure of covering operating costs based solely on art sales, our mission is to support artists and assist them in developing their practice. Though we provide a small $1,000 honorarium to our exhibiting artists, we want them to receive additional compensation for their efforts through sales of their artwork.
We also want them to begin establishing a collector base and loyal patrons, so that their practice can continue to grow and evolve.
Q: Tell us about other things that Leon does. You have produced concerts and a performance art series, correct?
A. Since first opening, we have consistently produced a wide variety of artistic experiences for our community, from intimate live music with local bands and musicians, to movie screenings, to literary readings, to an annual performance art series that seeks to break down the barriers and preconceptions of “performance art.”
Q. You have an interesting background. You are an artist yourself. What do you make?
A. I grew up in an artistic family. My mother, an artist herself, encouraged her children to embrace creativity in all forms. She exposed us to music, poetry, theater, dance and the visual arts from an early age. I continue to write poetry, draw, paint and compose music fairly regularly.
Q: How does your experience in music influence your art and curating?
A. I’ve been playing piano and composing since childhood. Music is a time-based art form, because you experience it over a passage of time. I think my musical pursuits have helped me approach curation with a focus on the journey that unfolds for the viewer as they move throughout an exhibition.
I enjoy planning out the various moments they will be experiencing during the time they spend in the exhibition. I try to create a curatorial structure that is cohesive overall, yet incorporates variation and changes in the dynamics of the artwork throughout.
Q. When I stop in at Leon, we always have a rich conversation about the state of art in Denver. So, without going into so much detail, tell me the one thing you wish would be better for artists and curators here.
A. My deepest wish for the local Denver arts community is that we are able to have greater faith in, and provide greater support for, the talent that already exists here and is continually emerging from within our own pond.
Artistic talent, even genius, is never bound by geography. A multitude of exceptional artists has risen from places vastly different from the obvious, expected centers for art. We need to get past the disabling, self-deprecating belief that interesting, worthwhile art only happens in other places, bigger cities, foreign countries.
What matters most is showing up and supporting what is actually happening right here, right now. And there is a lot of art happening in Denver, every day.
Q. Can you give a little advice to artists who are trying to start or restart their careers?
A. I believe a key element to a successful artistic career is truly understanding your personal goals and being realistic about the steps you need to take to achieve them, not the steps that others have taken to achieve theirs. It’s your journey, you make your own choices.
The art world is extremely diverse, and there are an infinite number of ways to realize levels of achievement. A successful museum artist who creates elaborate installations that are difficult to commodify for public consumption is very different from a landscape painter who consistently sells out of all their work at street fairs. Artists should think deeply about what success looks and feels like for them.
Q. How about advice for people who want to start or evolve their art collection and do not know where to begin?
A. Collecting art and displaying it in your home is one of the most powerful things you can do to enhance your day-to-day living environment. It’s not merely a financial investment. It’s an investment into your emotional and mental well-being. I recommend browsing galleries regularly, and looking out for artwork that excites your mind, improves your mood, motivates you. If you find something that speaks to you in this way, buy it, don’t hesitate. You will adjust your budget sooner than you think.
Q. Finally, what are you showing next at Leon? Is it another surprise?
A. Through March 4 we have a unique and powerful installation by local poet and artist Confidence Omenai, called “Did You Die Though?” Its power lies in the relationships between audio recordings of autobiographical poems with images of the artist throughout various transformative moments of her life.
Opening on March 11, as part of 2023’s Month of Photography, our next exhibition will feature the outrageous and sometimes salacious photography of Denver’s reigning queen of nightlife and counterculture, Shadows Gather. The exhibition is titled “Shadow Banned” because most of the images included in the exhibition were once forcibly removed from social media because of “controversial” content.
Leon Gallery is at 1112 E. 17th Ave. in Denver. Hours and more information at eongallery.org.
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