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.
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Leigh Conner, the driving force behind Conner Contemporary Art

Her biggest get yet? Leo Villareal. Conner's been showing the young New York-based artist's psychedelia-meets-computer-geek light works since 2002. Back then, he was a known quantity in New York but not yet an art star. Thanks to Conner's chutzpah, Villareal's LED installation "Multiverse" entered the National Gallery of Art's collection last year and ensured Conner a spot in the history books.

Villareal credits much of his good fortune to Conner's efforts. Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher included Villareal in the 2005 "Visual Music" show. Susan Harrison from the Art in Architecture program at the U.S. General Services Administration commissioned a piece for an El Paso federal courthouse. And, of course, there's the National Gallery, where curator Molly Donovan advocated for "Multiverse."

"Leigh is uniquely positioned and connected," Villareal says.

Conner's latest coup for Villareal was connecting him to Todd Smith, the director of the just-opened Tampa Museum of Art, which commissioned the artist to install a work on an exterior facade. The piece was unveiled last weekend.

To make connections like these, Conner works nonstop. The energy field emanating from her is in perpetual motion -- hands everywhere, shoulders shrugging, eyebrows moving up and down. She pounces on e-mails within minutes of their arrival, working late nights and early mornings. Her surfeit of juice fuels journeys through the circuit of international art fairs, with Conner waking early for setup and staying up late for schmoozing.

That quickness means she works on instinct and talks fast. Conner is constantly visiting artist studios to check on her stable, doling out suggestions and the occasional raised eyebrow.

"I wanted to do paintings that people could shoot," Conner artist Sandberg recalls of a discussion with his dealer about visitors destroying his artworks. "She looked at me like, 'What are you talking about?' "

"I have a tendency to be very blunt about things," Conner says. "Being a dealer is a little bit of tough love. And I'm just looking for ways to multi-task. I don't use a lot of adjectives."

Conner and Smith mount a regular schedule of solo and group shows, presenting Washington with everything from Coble tattooing herself in the gallery to vintage Washington Color School canvases by Thomas Downing to live chickens last fall. Almost nothing in the Conner program aligns with the decorative, salable inventories that keep most District galleries humming.

"Leigh is not afraid of forging ahead and pushing boundaries and assailing them with what she thinks is interesting," says Kost, who lived in D.C. from 1999 to 2004 and currently shows the drag queen Polaroids at Conner. "Ninety-five percent of contemporary art wouldn't appeal to most people who would buy it in Washington."

Far-flung customers

So who, then, is buying the stuff?

Though Conner and Smith would prefer it weren't so, most of their customers don't hail from the DMV. Conner won't name names ("We don't kiss and tell"), but it's well known that one is Mera Rubell -- the Miami-based mega-collector who is making inroads locally. Other buyers live in Belgium, Australia and throughout the United States and South America.


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