Art and the pandemic: Following a Denver gallery through the coronavirus outbreak

“Art can be that beacon of light that allows people to manage through very complex and challenging things.”
6 min. read
Art Restart at the Leon Gallery, June 14, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Recents weeks have been a blur of days.

Weekends at Leon, a nonprofit gallery and gathering place, at 1112 East 17th Avenue in the City Park West neighborhood, are Mondays and Tuesdays. But co-owner, founder and artistic director Eric Dallimore found himself in his gallery on Monday this week, wondering whether he should sweep and mop the floors again even though it had been days since anyone had trod them.

The coronavirus pandemic has meant uncertainty for many, not least Dallimore and others involved in the arts.

Denver officials announced the city's first positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on March 6. By the time Mayor Michael Hancock declared a coronavirus emergency a week later, gatherings in public places like restaurants were being curtailed to lessen the person-to-person contact that spreads disease. Then libraries and recreation centers were closed. March 17, the day after Hancock banned gatherings larger than 50 people, Leon's volunteer board decided the gallery should be open by appointment only to groups of no more than five.

New Yorker Kevin Frances's contemplative show, "Man In the Moon," is up now at Leon. No one made a date to see Frances's prints and an installation of tiny sculptures that resemble rooms in a deconstructed home.

"It seems like everyone is absolutely staying put," Dallimore said.

And that was before Hancock issued an order that, starting Tuesday evening and ending April 10 unless extended, residents only leave their homes for the essentials, including groceries and medicine. On Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis issued a similar order that covers the entire state, from Thursday through April 11.

Dallimore said people have reached out to tell him that art is important to them, even if it's something they may not want to leave the house for right now.

"There's nothing like walking up to, name your favorite work of art, in person," Dallimore said. "It's like seeing a long lost mother or friend in person."

Such visceral moments will have to give way to virtual exhibitions for now. Photos by Amanda Tipton of Frances's work have been posted on the Leon web site.

"The times are different now," Dallimore said. "You've got to adapt and change. Maybe that's the one lesson we're all going to have to learn from this experience."

Eric Robert Dallimore, founder and artistic director of Leon Gallery, poses for a portrait at his Congress Park home, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

His gallery partner, Eric Nord, said coronavirus has created anxiety and fear.

"There's a lot to process for all of us, trying to figure out priorities and trying to figure out the greatest needs," Nord said.

"Art is a way for people to process information in a very therapeutic way. Art can be that beacon of light that allows people to manage through very complex and challenging things," he added. "There's a level of beauty connected with it that allows us to find balance and truth through the turmoil."

Leon was founded in 2011 as a commercial gallery. Since it switched to nonprofit status in 2018, donations have helped augment art sales, from which the gallery takes a 20 percent commission, less than commercial galleries. More income has come from renting out the gallery, a cozy space of exposed brick and wood floors, for events such as baby showers.

But events have been canceled, along with the openings that build buzz and help sell art. Dallimore does not envision layoffs now for the gallery, which employs three people. Nord added the landlord has reduced the rent.

"We'll be able to weather the storm for a little while," Dallimore said. "Is it three months? Six months? A year? We put art and ideas first. But the hard truth is, you have to pay money in this world. You have to pay bills."

Dallimore has been encouraged not only by emails of support from gallery patrons, but by an announcement last week from the city that artists whose livelihoods were threatened by coronavirus would be eligible for grants of up to $1,000. Denver Arts & Venues has $130,000 for the program, which drew so much interest that officials have temporarily paused accepting new applications.

Dallimore said that in the past he has helped artists apply for grants, even those not associated with his gallery.

"If they're doing great, we're doing great. If we're doing great, they're doing great," he said. "It's kind of a symbiotic relationship."

Dallimore has been working from home, staying in touch with artists and colleagues via phone, email and video conferencing. His co-workers, board members and the artists on his roster are physically healthy, he said. One artist has been spending a lot of time on video games. Another has been hanging out at Cheesman Park.

"A couple of others are hunkered down in their studios," Dallimore said.

The gallerist also has been gardening and repainting walls in his home. Those activities, he said, remind him that it is spring, a time of renewal.

Eric Robert Dallimore, founder and artistic director of Leon Gallery, takes time to paint his bedroom while a shelter-in-place order is in effect for Denver. Congress Park, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Eric Robert Dallimore, founder and artistic director of Leon Gallery, works in his backyard garden while a shelter-in-place order is in effect for Denver. Congress Park, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Frances show had been scheduled to close Saturday. Dallimore said he has not yet decided whether to leave the work up longer. The artist was in no rush to reclaim any art that had not sold, he said.

That next event, this year's edition of an annual performance art series Leon launched in 2018, is scheduled to start April 18. That's after the city and state stay-at-home orders are set to expire, but Leon is preparing for an extension.

Nord said six artists originally were set to present their pieces of movement, music and spoken word in the gallery. For some of the artists, audience participation is part of the art. But four have agreed to instead create work that can be live-streamed to viewers. Nord said the performers will receive the honorariums the gallery had already planned to give, and that he is looking for digital ways for viewers to make payments directly to the artists as well.

"It gives (viewers) the experience of art and allows them to support arts organizations and artists," Nord said.

The series had been set for Saturdays. Nord is considering a week night, in part because he's seen that other arts organizations are offering online programming on the weekends.

"We're just trying to see where there might be space," Nord said.

We'll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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