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; C01

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.

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.

"We are very fortunate in our relationships with collectors that we value very much," Conner says. "And also we realize that the afterlife of their collections is going to have a huge impact on our artists' legacy."

Conner's concern for her artists' afterlife has led her to protect them mightily in this one.

"She'll defend us. . . . She backs us up as much as she can. I don't envy you, honestly," Sandberg says, referring to this reporter.

Yes, I've caught heat from Conner. Back in 2003, I took issue with a gallery essay accompanying a show by two local artists. My article so angered Conner that she chewed me out on my next visit, demanding that I leave the gallery immediately and that I never return. She vowed to cut me off and cut me out.

(A few weeks later, after the shaking stopped, I invited Conner for a drink at Bistrot du Coin, where we crafted a detente that's been in effect ever since.)

"We can be like lionesses protecting our cubs," Smith says when I remind her of the incident.

"We chose not to have children," Conner explains. "This is our children. Not the individual artists but the entity itself."

"It's not something we can tune in and out of when we feel like it," Smith adds. "It's really the fabric of our life."

Dawson is a freelance writer.

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