Being a nonprofit gallery means art and artists, not money, are the priorities at Leon
But money still has to be made.
Leon gallery’s directors are feeling fairly confident about finances. For now.
But “we will need to stay ahead of this so we don’t find ourselves another wonderful arts organization that had to close for various reasons, in this case the pandemic,” said Eric Dallimore, artistic director of the nonprofit art and event space at 1112 East 17th Avenue in the City Park West neighborhood.
The arts and artists have been hard hit by the general economic slow-down caused by the novel coronavirus and by the rules against large gatherings and the stay-at-home orders imposed to slow the spread of disease.
Recognition of COVID-19’s impact on the arts has led to the establishment of several public and private relief funds for the creative industries. Leon initially chose not to compete for those coronavirus arts relief funds, believing the needs of other organizations were more dire, Dallimore said. Leon’s landlord had given the gallery a break on the rent, and the gallery has seen an uptick in donations since the pandemic began, said Leon board member Rachel Ralph.
“We’re still in a good position,” Dallimore said.
Leon was able to pay stipends as planned to artists who took part in its annual performance art series. The series, in its third year, was moved online for the first time. Viewers were encouraged to offer the performers further financial support via Venmo. Dallimore said some of the artists returned their stipends to Leon and passed their Venmo proceeds on to other causes.
He’s been inspired by “the way I’ve seen artists give of themselves … even during this difficult time,” Dallimore said.
His job at Leon, which he co-founded, involves both supporting artists and running a business. Ralph, a curator and arts writer who once ran her own commercial gallery in San Francisco, is helping with the business side, including applying for grants, with a focus less on special COVID-19 funds and more on longstanding sources run by such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts. Application deadlines are approaching.
When Ralph returned about a year ago from California to the Denver area, where she grew up, she wanted to get involved with organizations “who were doing something good in the city and doing interesting work.”
She first went to Leon for an opening of work by bunny M, a friend. Ralph joined Leon’s seven-member, volunteer board soon after.
“Everything that they show is really, really smart,” she said. “But it’s not overbearing.”
While a gallery typically takes a 50 percent cut of an artist’s sales, Leon takes 20 percent. Leon was founded in 2011 as a commercial gallery. Before switching to a nonprofit in 2018, it was taking 40 percent of sales.
“It’s just compelling,” Ralph said of the 80-20 split. “The most important thing that Leon does is they put the art and the artists first.”
One of those artists recently proposed donating a piece that Leon could sell as a fundraiser. Soon other artists were making similar offers. An exhibition followed by an online auction of the work is planned for the fall.
“Right now, everybody needs help. Even the artists themselves,” Dallimore said.
He said when the artists suggested Leon take 100 percent of the auction sales, he thought, “We can’t allow that.” Instead, for the fall event, Leon will flip its usual arrangement with artists and take 80 percent of the proceeds.
“Doing a little pop-up as a fundraiser kind of feels right,” Dallimore said. “We aren’t the typical arts center that does a gala every year. Maybe we should figure that out.”
Neither Dallimore nor Eric Nord, Leon Gallery’s executive director, earn salaries from Leon. They make livings instead with such activities as teaching art and creating and selling their own art. Dallimore said his training as a sculpture makes him handy on a construction site. Before the pandemic shut down restaurants and bars, he occasionally picked up bartending shifts.
“We are very proud of what we do (at Leon). It’s very hard to admit that we don’t make a salary,” he said, adding that he feared people would think Leon was failing because it can’t pay its directors.
Just before the coronavirus forced the March closure, Leon’s board had approved a salary for Dallimore after seeing a steady increase in income from renting the gallery as an event space. Dallimore has put off taking a salary because of the uncertainty created by the pandemic, which means Leon wasn’t able to apply for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program of loans to help small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.
Nord said the goal is for him and Dallimore to one day draw salaries from Leon. That will allow them to give the gallery more of their focus, Nord said.
“Look what we’ve been able to accomplish while doing other jobs,” he said.
Leon’s directors may look back on the pandemic as a particularly productive period. Nord learned to live-stream a performance arts festival. Dallimore arranged to host shows that could be seen through the windows. Jared D.P. Anderson included a performance art piece with a window installation that opened April 22 and continued into May. This week, Michael Dowling has been sketching portraits from Leon’s windows. Neither of those shows was originally on Leon’s 2020 calendar.
Once Denver completely reopens, “we’re going to be in a great position,” Dallimore said.
Starting May 9, Denver moved from a stay-at-home to a safer-at-home strategy under which businesses began to reopen as long as they followed rules meant to curb COVID-19. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other places of public accommodation still can’t welcome sit-down customers. Part of Leon’s business is sales, so it could let art buyers into the gallery as long as they numbered no more than 10 at a time and kept their social distance. But Leon doesn’t plan to welcome the public again until June, when a joint show by multimedia artists Marsha Mack and Lindsay Smith Gustave is scheduled. Instead of a traditional opening for Mack and Gustave, Dallimore and Nord may let just a few people in at a time over the course of an evening.
Unlike for a restaurant or a bar, Nord said, “the number of people that come through our door doesn’t really have anything to do with our revenue.”
“For us, we don’t really make a profit any day,” he said, then chuckled.
The opening had been set for June 6. But Mack has been unable to access her studio and tools, which are in a recreation center that was closed because of the coronavirus, to work on ceramic pieces that are part of the show. Now the planned opening date is June 20.
We’ll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.