There’s a motto at the nonprofit Leon Gallery
: “Outliers change the world.”
For executive director Eric Nord
, those words help define the space's mission. “It comes from a scientific mathematical term,” he says. “It’s the idea that people who are unique and have distinct voices are the people who move things forward, change our minds and allow us to see things differently, so we get a more varied view of the world and what’s possible.”
It’s precisely that thinking that goes into the selection of the artists presented at Leon. “Our programming consists of artwork we feel is pushing the art world forward in terms of techniques and style,” says Nord. “We also look for artists who have potent, provocative content in addressing social-political issues.”
In the midst of last year's COVID-19 lockdowns and civil unrest, “we did some programs that responded very quickly to what was happening, such as the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Nord. Two of those exhibits included Jasmine Abena Colgan’s Human Currency,
a collection of works confronting institutional racism using the cowrie seashell as a metaphor, and Raafi Rivero’s Unarmed
, an exhibition of sports jerseys for a fictional team of unarmed Black people murdered by police. The show addresses how the names of those killed too often go forgotten, but sardonically suggests that if the victims were sports figures, perhaps people would remember them.
Leon Gallery's Unarmed exhibit.
Amanda Tipton Photography
Leon Gallery was initially conceived by Eric R. Dallimore, Matthew Buford and Lindsay Giles McWilliams, opening in 2011 to provide a space in the community for artists and musicians who didn’t have an outlet at more established places. In 2014, Buford and McWilliams left to pursue other interests. Nord became a co-owner and helped Dallimore reimagine the space from a for-profit business to a nonprofit to better serve the artist community. The nonprofit status became official in 2018, distinguishing their space from commercial galleries.
“It allows us to take risks and work with unproven artists, which isn’t always financially viable,” says Nord. “It can take a while for people to warm up to a new artist, especially if they are really innovative or presenting work that pushes the limits. By transitioning to a nonprofit, we can be an experimental place where artists have the freedom to fail, whereas commercial galleries will only take financially successful artists. They have to make those sales to keep the lights on.”
The gallery offers support to emerging and unknown artists in a number of ways, from helping write their artist bios to making studio visits and providing mentorship in putting a collection together for a show. But it’s the financial aspect that makes the biggest distinction. The gallery only takes a 30 percent cut of sales rather than the standard 50 percent, so the artist can keep prices down to encourage more purchases and keep more money for themselves.
Nord also explains how Leon offers the artists it works with a $1,000 honorarium up front. “The artist can use that in any way that helps them, from buying art materials to framing or taking a week or two off from their day job so they can focus on putting together their artwork for a show.”
Leon Gallery executive director Eric Nord.
One of the sources of those honorariums is fundraisers like the one the gallery is hosting on Saturday, August 21 — a costume gala to celebrate its tenth anniversary. The Deca Dance
will include an art auction, food and drink, DJs and a costume contest with cash prizes, where guests are encouraged to dress up in the styles of their favorite artist era. Categories include:
1920s - Tamara (art deco eleganza)
1940s - Picasso (abstract/avant-garde)
1960s - Warhol (pop/mod)
1970s - Mapplethorpe (leather/latex/BDSM)
1980s - Basquiat (street chic)
2020s - Futuristic (wild card)
The event will take place on a red-carpet runway in the gallery’s back alley — an outdoor space that Nord said will hopefully alleviate rising COVID-19 concerns. He plans to observe city and state guidelines and take all safety precautions for the celebration.
In the meantime, the gallery is open regular hours for those who want to see the exhibitions and is planning for the future, including educational pop-ups and mentorship programs for youth. For Nord, what he loves most about working with the gallery is discovering new artists and giving them a leg up.
“One of the most difficult things about being an artist is getting people’s attention," he explains. Painters and visual artists work alone, so they don’t get a lot of feedback, and they can be very uncertain if what they’re doing is good.” He says he loves watching an artist blossom when they start getting a positive response to their work, observing how it expands their thinking in terms of what they’re capable of. “I love just seeing someone realize they can do more than they ever thought they could.”
Amanda Tipton Photography
Leon strives to be a welcoming space not only for artists, but also for visitors.
“We’re not one of those galleries that looks down their nose," he says. "We want people to come in and experience the art, and we want to talk about it, because we think it’s important. We hope people who visit the gallery will leave having learned something or feeling better about the world, knowing there are people being creative in their thinking.”
Leon Gallery Deca Dance Fundraising Gala runs from 7 p.m. to midnight Saturday, August 21, in the alley behind Leon, at 1112 East 17th Avenue. Tickets are $25 and available online.