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19th annual Women in Business Summit
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Sharon Leeber’s fiery red hair is an apt reflection of her fierce personality and alluring charm. While you won’t recognize her on the street, more than likely you’ve seen her work—specifically, the artwork she helped curate for the community. All of the sculptures at CityLine in Richardson; the Chihuly glass that adorns the largest window of the Dallas Museum of Art; and Herk van Tongren’s Teatron XIX in Wylie which was featured in Plano Profile: all are pieces Sharon helped select for the Metroplex.
I meet Sharon at her home in North Dallas. Hiding behind old pecan trees sits a ranch-style house with large windows that reveal a peek of colors against the glare of the sun. Her home is a lived-in museum. Large and colorful modern paintings hang next to a kinetic sculpture and a funky lime green chair while a vitrine filled with vintage cameras sits quietly in the corner of her formal living room. The hallway is filled with a collection of black and white photographs (some taken by Sharon), alongside drawings and mementos from artists like Richard Serra.
Shelves in the den display pottery from Asia and first edition books passed down by her grandmother. On another wall, a vintage Cigarette Girl from the Rockefeller Center gazes down upon a graphic black and white canvas with the words “COCO MADE ME DO IT.” Her favorite pieces, Paul Soldner raku ceramics, reside in her main office (there are three in her house). Every room contains artwork close to Sharon’s heart; each representing a little piece of her eclectic personality. There are very few bare spots of wall left.
Sharon grew up in the Midwest wanting to be an artist, but her father, a football coach, was determined to see her get a more stable degree. He told her she could do anything she wanted to in life, but she had to be able to support herself. So while studying the arts she simultaneously got a degree in education and graduated at the age of 19. After going to graduate school in Washington, D.C., she moved to Texas with her husband and kids to teach sculpture and photography at El Centro College and UT Dallas. Teaching was never Sharon’s passion, but she couldn’t support a family as an artist.
“I was talking to a friend who’s a landscape architect about how I didn’t know what to do other than teach. He said, ‘Why don’t you teach us [landscape architects] to do something other than plant trees?’ He was being a bit facetious, but I thought why not? I started lecturing to landscape architects about the importance of art in public spaces, and they would invite clients. One day a client said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’” she explains.
Sharon took ten architects on a trip to New York City and Boston to show them the kind of public art she was talking about. They hired her immediately.
She then founded Architectural Arts Company (AAC), working with architects, developers and landscape architects to curate sculptures in public and large-scale development projects. Essentially, Sharon invented a job for herself that involved art.
“[My clients] used all these fancy things to attract people [to their business], so why not use art in vacant spaces in parks and business buildings to attract people? Now, it’s an old idea. At the time, no one had heard of it,” she says.
Breaking into the male dominated boardrooms of big businesses didn’t faze Sharon, even when the intimidating Trammell Crow called.
“The first time I met him was for my first big job in Charlotte, NC, purchasing art for an entire building tower,” she reminisces. “I went in for our first meeting, and everyone working on the project was already there—only one seat was left. Little did I know, [Trammell] had rolled the seat all the way down. My chin was literally on the table. I was mortified. I found out later he was a big practical joker. The next time we had a meeting, I got there 15 minutes early and hurried to a seat.”
Sharon passed their test and learned a valuable lesson that day. Because, more often than not, she was the only woman in meetings, her petite frame was lost among burly businessmen. The solution: hats.
“I bought the most gorgeous hats in order to take up more room,” she laughs. “I had beautiful hats you could only buy in New York City. And it worked. I got so much respect, it was bizarre. I did that for about five years until I built up a reputation.”
Sometimes her skills were brushed aside.
“It became popular to become an art consultant, and my clients started hiring from New York because they wanted a New York name. It really hurt me, because those people charged four times as much, and I was the one who showed them how to do it. That hurt. Eventually some came back to me, and I gritted my teeth. I think I broke a few teeth actually,” she smiles with hints of vindication.
Nowadays, Sharon doesn’t need a hat to command attention. Her work with companies like United Airlines, Sterling Software and Southwestern Bell speaks for itself, as do the artists she discovered long before they were world-renowned, like Dale Chihuly and Richard Serra. She has an innate ability to recognize rising artistic talent.
“Part of it is instinct and paying attention to art. But not just art, it’s music, architecture, design, everything. The other part is knowing if an artist is going to work really hard at their career, or if they’re going to drop out. [My job] started out with instinct and a ‘good eye,’ whatever that is. It’s developed day after day. I need to know about landscape architecture, [building] architecture and plant material. And I really like what I do. That’s more important than anything.”
Another key to her success is the International Women’s Forum (IWF), an organization made up of more than 6,500 women leaders committed to building better global leadership. On international trips, Sharon connected with other members who helped her gain access to local museum directors and prominent artists.
“I was able to open the door by just asking [these women] for help, and I’ve asked for help a lot,” she confidently admits.
When deciding what kind of piece to put in a public space she takes into consideration what the client wants and the feel of the location. She often draws inspiration from literal translations of life—for instance, the bright green, ceramic rabbit at the DART station at CityLine, titled One of a Kind by the Timothy Berg and Rebekah Myers collaborative.
“When doing the [CityLine project], I wanted to get a feel from the DART people, so I called asking if they were having art at the station. The guy said, ‘No, there’s nothing out there but columns, vines and wild rabbits, so stick a rabbit out there as far as I’m concerned.’ I thought, that’s not a bad idea.”
Management wasn’t sold on the piece, but she convinced them it was the right way to go. Now, the aerodynamic rabbit is one of the most popular pieces; a miniature version even sits on a shelf in Sharon’s home.
“When I go [to CityLine], people are taking pictures of [the rabbit] and standing around it. It’s art and people don’t even think about it—they just love it. It makes me feel really good, especially something like that.”
Sharon’s current project is the nearly $400 million development of the First National Bank in downtown Dallas; renamed THE DREVER, it includes apartments and the first Thompson Hotel in Texas. She’s acquiring art for the apartment amenities, outdoor public areas, the hotel and restaurants. Simultaneously she’s working on other projects in Uptown, and residential projects in Los Angeles and Vail, Colorado.
Although her personal art resides in her home, Sharon’s full collection truly spans the Metroplex.