A gallery shut down by the coronavirus re-thinks a performance art series

“It takes a lot of work to be spontaneous.”
5 min. read
Eric Robert Dallimore, founder and artistic director of Leon Gallery, stands in the City Park West space after taking down a show. April 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When he saw the three poets exchanging words and movement at the Denver Art Museum earlier this year, Leon Gallery's executive director knew he wanted them to be part of his performance art series.

"There was a humor to it and definitely an intelligence to it that provoked your mind and piqued your curiosity," Eric Nord, co-owner of Leon, said of the piece by Sommer Browning, Phil Cordelli and Sueyeun Juliette Lee that was part of the "Untitled: Creative Fusion" series in which artists took over DAM galleries at night.

"I liked the fact that they had such a strong background in literature, and yet they were doing something that was more performative," Nord said.

Nord already knew Browning, who had helped curate readings at his nonprofit gallery and event space, and Lee, who had attended some of Browning's literary evenings. He signed the pair and Cordelli up for Leon's third annual performance art program. Six performances were scheduled in the gallery over six weeks beginning this weekend.

Then came the coronavirus. Leon hasn't had visitors since mid-March, shortly before Denverites were asked to stay home for the most part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease cause by the coronavirus. Leon's performance art series has been indefinitely postponed while Nord and his artists re-imagine it for our shelter-at-home, social distancing times.

Whenever it takes place, Browning won't be taking part. Her decision to withdraw illustrates the challenge of balancing creative ambitions and limitations, and is a reminder that making art is hard work.

"For all they're painted as being free spirits and 'anything goes,' they're actually very meticulous," Browning said of artists. "It takes a lot of work to be spontaneous."

She and her poet partners had choreographed a new piece for Leon.

"The work that we do is pretty close in terms of physical contact. We touch each other, we clown around," she said.

And in-the-moment audience reaction is part of the experience.

"It's really great to get feed-back from other people" during the performance, she said.

Re-thinking the piece for people to watch at a distance on a computer screen would have required more tweaking of the choreography and rehearsals. And then the results would have had to be recorded.

"It seemed like double the amount of work," Browning said.

Browning also has a full-time job as associate director of technical services for the library that serves the three Auraria Higher Education Campus institutions -- the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver. While the campus is closed because of the coronavirus, the librarians are working from home, including staffing a 24-hour, seven-day a week chat service.

"They're answering all sorts of research questions, day and night," Browning said, adding that she and her colleagues are busier than ever.

Browning isn't the only artist to have dropped out of Leon's festival. Nord said the artists scheduled for the first two dates also have decided not to go ahead.

But the show, which Nord envisions being streamed online over several evenings, will go on, perhaps starting in late April or early May.

"It seems so hard to plan these days," Nord said. "Things seem to be shifting from day to day."

Cordelli and Lee, the poets he saw with Browning at the Denver Art Museum, have told Nord they will perform without her. They've yet to settle on a date. Nord said that if he were an artist being pushed to make such a decision, he might say: "Well, my decision is: I don't want to do it."

"I'm trying not to be too aggressive with people," he said. "A lot of people are processing a lot of things right now."

Nord himself has been combing through guidelines as he considers whether Leon might be eligible for grants that have been offered to help artists and arts organizations during the economic upheaval created by the coronavirus.

He has been "doing a lot of reading. And trying to sort through things. There's a lot of information."

And just as he's trying to find the right balance between nudging artists to set dates and not pushing too hard, he's having to consider how to talk to clients about payments he's been expecting. Art buyers are under financial and personal stress because of the coronavirus, he said. Artists are likely even more vulnerable, he said.

"I feel uncomfortable saying, 'Let's get this paid,'" he said. "But, also, my first and foremost concern is for the artist to get paid. I want to watch out for the little guy."

Amid all this, planning for the performance arts series gives him a chance to look ahead, beyond the crisis.

One artist Nord has pinned down is Denver choreographer Sarah Touslee, who has a contemplative, intimate style that seems to suit his mood at this moment.

"I find myself incredibly sad and sentimental," Nord said. "There's always that beauty in melancholy. Life is multifaceted. You accept the pain with the joy. You kind of have to."

Nord and Touslee have been discussing a performance on May 14 or May 21. On Monday, Mayor Michael Hancock extended Denver's stay-at-home order until April 30. Perhaps restrictions will have been relaxed enough by mid-May for Touslee to perform a solo at Leon. Nord does not think it would be possible to have an audience in the gallery as well, as social distancing might still be required. But her piece could be live streamed to an audience.

It could be a time, Nord said, when "people can feel optimistic again."

We'll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

Correction: This article was updated to correct that Touslee lives in Denver.

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