Art museums are starting to reopen, but Leon Gallery is skeptical

As the Denver gallery plans its own reopening, its directors are keeping an eye on coronavirus infections numbers.
6 min. read
Portraits by Narkita Gold on display at the Leon Gallery in City Park West. June 24, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Museum of Outdoor Arts, which reopened its indoor gallery June 1 following a coronavirus shutdown, is requiring visitors to buy tickets in advance so that it can limit the numbers in its galleries at any one time. The Denver Art Museum, which reopens its Hamilton Building on Friday, has added more motion-activated hand sanitizing stations.

"We're not going to get the crowd that the DAM is going to get," Leon Gallery's executive director Eric Nord said, and chuckled.

Nord and Leon artistic director Eric Dallimore are keeping an eye on how Denver's other art organizations, large and small, are approaching welcoming visitors back inside amid a pandemic. Leon, which would fit easily inside DAM's lobby, has scheduled its first gallery opening since the coronavirus for July 18. The show will feature photographs by Jasmine Abena Colgan.

Leon sells art, so Nord and Dallimore could have made an argument for reopening in May, when retail and other businesses that were shuttered during Denver's coronavirus stay-at-home phase began a gradual re-start. Instead, Leon's directors focused on two projects they developed during the stay-at-home, an installation series that can be viewed through the windows of the closed gallery at 1112 E. 17th Ave. in City Park West, and an online performance art festival.

Having until July to reopen "is giving us a little more time to see how things develop," Nord said.

"This is not a time in history to be rushing anything," Dallimore said.

Their go-slow approach seems prescient now amid reports of coronavirus cases rising across the country as the economy reopens. Arizona, for instance, recently reported more than 3,600 new cases, a new daily record.

Pandemic data is "something that I've been watching for various reasons," Nord said. "For personal, family reasons. And for the gallery."

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said during a COVID-19 update Wednesday that the city saw an increase in cases after the Memorial Day weekend. But he said hospitalizations were trending down, the city was able to conduct more than 1,100 coronavirus tests daily over the past two weeks, and the positive rate from its tests is 3 percent, below the 5 percent figure he said would spark concern.

Hancock pointed to the re-opening of gyms, restaurant dine-in areas, the zoo and Cherry Creek Mall as well as museums, saying that "it's great that, little by little, it's a little easier for people to get around and to see other people." But he stressed that Denverites need to continue to take such measures as wearing face masks, keeping social distance and washing their hands frequently. If the data starts to look ominous, restrictions could be tightened, Hancock said.

Once Leon reopens to the public, visitors will be required to wear masks, as they are at Englewood's Museum of Outdoor Arts and DAM. Nord said he, Dallimore and members of Leon's board of directors are still working out other protocols and how they will be communicated.

"We'll devise our own way of saying it, instead of just copying and pasting what others are doing," Nord said.

Portraits by Narkita Gold on display at the Leon Gallery in City Park West. June 24, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Colgan's opening won't look like a pre-pandemic gallery event, with 200 to 400 people crowding into Leon over the course of an evening. Instead, groups of eight people at a time will be welcomed into the 1,000-square-foot space starting in the late afternoon. At most, about 80 people will see the show on July 18, Dallimore said.

He said he and Nord, who usually would act as hosts for an opening, might spend most of the time just outside the gallery door "and pop in and out." If they were inside, it would limit the number of guests.

"It's not quite what I'm used to," Dallimore said. "But, hey, that's what the world is about right now. Whatever you're used to, that's not what we're doing now."

Leon had hosted a performance art series as a live event in the gallery the last two years. This year, Nord learned to live-stream performances using social media platforms. Could he put that skill acquired during the coronavirus era to use to digitally welcome visitors on opening night? Dallimore was hesitant.

"You've got to see works of art in person," Dallimore said, adding that watching from your home computer as people wander the gallery might not be much of a draw.

But "who knows? People watch people's lawn cameras," Dallimore said. "Who knows what people will watch these days?"

Visitors might not want to physically come to an opening, Dallimore said, adding he hasn't yet felt comfortable attending openings at other galleries. He's expecting larger-than-pre-pandemic-usual numbers at Leon in the days following the opening. Depending on demand, visitors might have to reserve times to visit the gallery after the opening as they will have to do for opening night.

Portraits by Narkita Gold on display at the Leon Gallery in City Park West. June 24, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Leon had initially expected to reopen with a joint exhibition by multimedia artists Marsha Mack and Lindsay Smith Gustave. That show has been delayed indefinitely, in part because the artists had struggled to access studio space during the pandemic shutdown, and in part because they had begun to question the relevancy of their planned show, which would have focused on the natural world, as protests over racism focused attention on issues of equity.

Nord had first seen and been struck by Colgan's work last year when he was helping choose participants in Month of Photography Denver, an art fair that involves galleries across the metro area. The show at Leon by the Colorado-born Colgan will be drawn from a trip she made to Ghana, where her mother has roots, as part of her MFA studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Colgan's work explores her own complex identity as well as West African history, the slave trade and the cold welcome Irish immigrants such as some of her relatives found in America.

The upending of Leon's schedule by the pandemic opened a window for a show that Nord and Dallimore say is right for this moment.

We'll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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