Correction to This Article
The Galleries column about D.C. art dealer Leigh Conner said she owns the Northeast Washington building that houses her gallery, Conner Contemporary Art. The building is co-owned by Conner and her partner, Jamie Smith.

Leigh Conner, the driving force behind Conner Contemporary Art

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 12, 2010

Word of advice: Art dealer Leigh Conner is many things -- well-connected, a powerhouse, the District's top gallerist -- but one thing she isn't is laid-back. Never, ever cross her. Trust me, I know.

Conner is the public face of Conner Contemporary Art, the Trinidad gallery she runs with her partner in life and work, Jamie Smith. Though both work with the gallery's stable of local, national and international artists, Conner's the one who works the room.

With that spiky black hair sprinkled with gray and her black button-down shirt and pants (maybe the occasional blue scarf coordinated to her baby-blue MBTs), Conner cuts a memorable figure as she maneuvers around her openings -- each seemingly more extravagant and well attended than the last.

Since moving to expansive digs on Florida Avenue NE a year and a half ago, her profile and her parties have reached ever higher. (For the Jeremy Kost opening last month, imported New York City drag queens literally towered over the crowd.) While G Fine Art, Conner's closest rival, remains on temporary hiatus as it refurbishes a new exhibition space, Conner's showroom is the most spectacular in the city. (Conner owns her building outright, a rare feat for a gallery owner anywhere.)

A global reach

Conner's reach into international markets far exceeds that of her closest D.C. competitors. Since 2004, Conner has participated in international art shows in London; Turin, Italy; and Mexico City. This April, she'll do her second tour of Art Brussels. Neither G Fine Art, Irvine Contemporary or Hemphill Fine Arts has participated in these fairs; Adamson Gallery has only done Paris Photo, and that was in the late 1990s.

From her perch atop the heap of D.C. gallery owners, Conner, 47, shines a beacon of hope onto the area's art scene.

"I'm not happy with the outmoded thought that in order to be a successful artist you have to leave D.C.," Conner says. "Maybe in 1965, sure. But the world has changed. There's no doubt that you have to engage with what's going on. But that doesn't mean you can't live in D.C. and do so."

Conner grew up in Thomasville, Ga., near the Florida border. After college at Georgia Southern, she tried stints in marketing and photojournalism. Her interest in art began in the mid-'80s, when she started collecting folk art and visited legendary outsider artist Howard Finster's mountain cabin in northern Georgia. By the end of that decade, her interest had morphed into a taste for contemporary art.

The dynamic duo

Conner met Smith, 46, at a Washington rally in the late 1980s and moved to the District in 1991 to be with her. Born in Charlottesville and raised in four states, Smith came to Washington in the early '80s to attend George Washington University and never left. After studying psychology and fine arts, Smith settled on art history and received her PhD from Johns Hopkins in 2008.

Together, the pair opened Conner Contemporary Art in a modest second-floor space near Dupont Circle in 1999. Early on, Smith was a student and her involvement in gallery affairs was minimal. Today, she is an equal, if more reserved, gallery partner.

Over the past decade, the pair have attracted top local talent, including performance artist Mary Coble, video artist Brandon Morse, painter Erik Sandberg and artist Zoe Charlton, whose large-scale drawings deal with identity and race.

But Conner's greatest coup has been snagging key out-of-town artists and reversing Washington's "get thee to New York" curse.

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