Leon Gallery grapples with representation among its artists and board

“We’re not doing enough to make sure that all voices are being heard.”

The Leon Gallery has messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters taped to its windows. June 10, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Leon Gallery has messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters taped to its windows. June 10, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Photographer Narkita Gold has been chronicling what it means to be Black in Denver in images and words in a project that went online in late 2018.

As protests against racism that are sweeping the country make her feel her work is even more important, Gold was asked to turn her Black in Denver photographs into banners to fly over Leon gallery. They will declare, she said, that “there are Black people here and we are amazing.”

Her subjects are entrepreneurs, poets, politicians, dancers, teachers and more. Gold has photographed each against vibrant, complementary backgrounds that seemed to have been calling out to be banners all along.  She hopes to have the banners printed with her portraits up in the next few weeks.

Until then, Leon, like the country, is having something of a moment of reflection.

Leon’s front window is empty. Last week, the window was briefly dominated by a somber mural by Ashley Joon, who is know for bold floral motifs. Joon envisioned her art for Leon as a tribute to victims of racist violence. She stepped aside and her piece was painted over after it sparked a conversation about expression, race and who gets the opportunities to command the stage.

“I agree that black artists should be highlighted,” said Joon, who is of Iranian origin. “I just want to be sensitive and make sure that I am listening.”

Joon had been asked to do a mural for Leon’s window before protests of racism and police violence broke out in Denver and across the United States after the May 25 death in police custody in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an African American. Back when the pandemic was the focus of attention, artistic director Eric Dallimore thought what he called Joon’s “beautiful work” was apt for a series of window installations that had begun in April.

By the time Joon was scheduled to start painting, the mood had changed. Dallimore, waiting for her in the gallery, had come to believe that offering “a bit of beauty during the pandemic” was no longer appropriate. He found Joon was thinking the same thing. When she arrived, she told him that instead of one of her more typical murals, she wanted to do something in mourning tones.

“She came at it with such thoughtfulness,” Dallimore said, adding that with her plan, Leon would be just “painting a piece for the pandemic when the world is shifting.”

Dallimore at the time was talking to Gold and other local Black artists about work that could be given a platform at Leon. Joon’s mural would be part of a larger whole.

As Joon embarked on her mural, she discussed her aims on social media and her plans to include in the piece the words of Black Americans, among them her half brother. She had seen a social media post from her brother in which he spoke of his fears for his Black sons, which she had never discussed with him.

“I felt it was my responsibility to try to share their words,” she said.

That’s when Dallimore and Leon’s executive director Eric Nord, who are white, began to get questions. Was this a case of a woman who was not Black appropriating the words of African Americans for her own purposes? Why wasn’t a Black artist being given the chance to speak for him or herself?

The questioners were “people who care about our organization and say they look up to Leon,” Dallimore said.

Nord had his own reservations.

“To have an artist who paints flowers normally making a statement about Black Lives Matter, it just didn’t feel right,” Nord said.

During the protests, Nord watched a live news feed and saw art created by people who may not have thought of themselves as artists: demonstrators in Denver switching on their cell phone flashlights to together illuminate the night. It created “a transcendent moment. And that can be healing.”

Nord, who also is an artist, felt it was time for him and for Leon to step back.

“What is the relevancy of my voice at this moment?” Nord said. “The best thing that we can do is be a platform for Black voices.”

Joon’s mural was painted over after two days.

“It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do as a curator,” Dallimore said. “We’re not trying to silence anyone’s voice,” adding that he told Joon: “We can’t, unfortunately, let your voice be the voice for the moment.

“Old paradigms are shifting. Our daily lives are shifting. I feel like the gallery should do the same,” Dallimore said.

While Nord has been watching the protests from afar, Dallimore has been participating almost daily. He described watching fellow protesters debate when to fall silent and when to speak, and saw that as a lesson for Leon.

“We’re not doing enough to make sure that all voices are being heard,” he said. “If we are claiming to be a radical gallery that represents critical voices, we’ve got to do just that.”

Artists who had two shows scheduled at Leon in coming months have asked to postpone so that shows by Black artists can be mounted.

“Our artists have big hearts,” said Dallimore, who is working to schedule replacement shows.

Gold might have work inside the gallery as well as flying over it.

“It’s absolutely stunning,” Dallimore said of Gold’s work.

The banners he’s asked her to design will replace a set by Alyssa Mora  promoting the window installation that is now being abandoned.

Gold said that when the pandemic arrived, she had been exploring ideas of wisdom and many of the sitters for her portraits were older, in the age group considered at high risk for the worst effects of COVID-19. She paused the project so as to not endanger their health.

Then came news of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man shot and killed in Georgia after being followed by two white men, Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old former police officer, and his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael. Arbery was killed in February but did not gain national attention until early May, when a lawyer for Arbery’s family released a video that raised questions about the McMichaels’ account of Arbery’s death. On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency room technician, was shot and killed in her Kentucky home by police who had used a battering ram to crash in. Those deaths and that of Floyd led Gold to resume Black in Denver. She said she saw more than ever the need to honor the lives of Black Americans.

Gold has been holding portrait sittings and conducting interviews with younger subjects outside to ensure social distancing, adding to the 60 portraits on her website or about to be posted there.

The flags are another way to ensure Black Denverites are seen, she said. She is still deciding on her design, but expects to have several portraits on a banner, and perhaps a different set on each banner. Passersby at Leon will see signs directing them to Gold’s website where they can read about her subjects. Eventually, the flags will be sold to raise money for Black organizations to be chosen by Gold and Leon’s directors.

Gold said she lives near Leon but had not known much about the gallery until Dallimore called recently to invite her to create banners. Dallimore was connected to Gold by another artist, Tya Anthony, who Gold calls her mentor.  Anthony sits on Leon’s advisory board and had a show at the gallery in 2017.

Anthony, who is Black, does not sit on Leon’s five-member main board, which has one Latina member. The other members are white.

“The Black community is not represented on our board,” Nord said. “It’s something that we want to address going forward.”

We’ll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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