Gallerist Chandra Johnson Mixes North and South in Her Charlotte-Based Collection
Gallerist, collector, and patron Chandra Johnson. Courtesy Chandra Johnson.
Last fall, Chandra Johnson was standing by Summer Wheat’s mammoth window installation Foragers at the Mint Museum, enjoying the grand depictions of female woodworkers, weavers, hunters, and gatherers. Then freshly installed, the 96-panel vinyl-on-mylar work covers the entire window of the museum’s atrium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The mythic depiction of female labor towers over viewers with its 3,720-square-foot scale. It also stands as a potent symbol of Johnson’s commitment to champion art from Charlotte and the South in general.
The Oklahoma-born, Brooklyn-based Wheat is on the roster of Johnson’s SOCO Gallery, located inside a 1920s-style bungalow in Charlotte’s Myers Park, and is represented in the personal collection the gallerist has amassed with her NASCAR-champion husband, Jimmie Johnson. The 44-year-old Chandra also sits on the advisory board of the Mint Museum, in addition to engaging with the neighboring Bechtler Museum of Modern Art with loans and support, such as helping with the restoration of an artwork in the museum’s ongoing Jean Tinguely exhibition, “A Life in Motion.”
Clare Rojas, Untitled, 2016. Courtesy Chandra Johnson.
Tightly interwoven dealing, collecting, and patronage have formed a natural routine for Johnson over the course of nearly a decade. After catching the collecting bug around 18 years ago—“an addiction,” she admitted—she went on to open a gallery in 2015. As a wide-ranging buyer, Johnson’s growing friendships in the New York art world prompted her to bring them to Charlotte. “I wanted to give this community access to what I was seeing in all of my art travels and foster a new conversation in the South,” she said.
Following a pop-up exhibition with the lens-based artist Lyle Owerko at the Mint in 2014, SOCO Gallery (which refers to Southern hospitality) opened its current space at a moment “when the city was pulling out of the recession and rapidly growing,” Johnson recalled.
Jackie Gendel, Archers, 2012. Courtesy Chandra Johnson.
In that growth, and amid a concentration of local seasoned collectors, Johnson recognized the potential to expand the Charlotte art scene. “I also saw an opportunity for educating a new crowd on collecting contemporary art,” she said. “There was a real appetite for access to artists from around the country and world—I feel we have taken our community on a journey with us.”
The journey has most recently taken SOCO Gallery to New York’s Chinatown, where it recently inaugurated its project space. It has just opened its second exhibition, titled “Cold-Eyed and Mean,” featuring blue and black paintings fresh from Alison Hall’s southwest Virginia studio.
Liz Nielsen. Diamond Man, 2015. Courtesy Chandra Johnson.
Johnson’s goal in the Big Apple “is to be a Southern voice in the larger art narrative,” she said, and she’s excited to offer more “exposure to our artist roster, and that is what every gallery owner is after.” Back home, she is thrilled by the growing interest in her artists, which she considers “part of a cultural shift” in the city. “The conversations I was having in the beginning are very different from those we are having today,” she said. Besides the ongoing exoduses to Charlotte from larger metropoles, the established collector community and local institutions have been working to connect the art community there with those from national and even global fronts through initiatives such as the recent Isaac Julien exhibition at the Bechtler and Diedrick Brackens’s upcoming show of woven sculptures at the Mint.
At home, the Johnson family’s collection reflects a similar medley of the local and the international, a balancing of cutting-edge, new generation names with heavyweight fixtures. A mysterious chromogenic photograph by Liz Nielsen is hung alongside a Raymond Pettibon painting, a Henri Matisse sketch, and a photograph by Malick Sidibé; meanwhile, Clare Rojas’s poetic oil-on-linen abstraction is steps away from sculptures by Joel Shapiro and Donald Judd.
The couple’s Charlotte residence reflects their ying-yang balance to collecting: “Jimmie really loves blue chip, as do I, but my focus the last decade has been on collecting artists of our generation—people I can have a relationship with and support in a really profound way,” she said. Works by Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, and Anish Kapoor are paired with those by the painters Johnson represents at her gallery, such as Jackie Gendel, Summer Wheat, and Damian Stamer. “They are highly connected,” Johnson explained, regarding the merger of collecting and dealing. “I want to show artists I am interested in, and those are usually artists I want to collect and support.” As a result, she frequently buys from her gallery’s shows, although showing an artist usually means she already acquired work from them earlier.
This joyful entanglement of Johnson’s two passions stems from an eye trained to identify talent and what she calls “the universe’s way of bringing artists to my attention.” She finds a thrill in seeing the artists she has been championing reach new heights, which “makes me think how stars can align, even in collecting.” Her strategy to collect starts with focusing on an artist and searching for the right piece: “The exploration and hunt,” as she put it, always yields to finding “the one.”
The juggling between collecting and dealing oftentimes prompts her to pick a priority: Johnson sees art fairs for dealing, and when SOCO Gallery participates in events such as the Armory Show or NADA, her focus remains fully on her own booth. This means the couple usually knocks on other galleries’ doors when it comes time to acquire—but only if she’s not busy putting together her own shows at the bungalow.
“Learning, growing, and reinventing” is how Johnson described her mutual plans for her gallery and collection. “My hope is to continue to support conversations in the South around art, bring new ideas to our region,” she added, “as well as elevating Southern voices to connect with the broader arts community, nationally and internationally.” With the works in her home and SOCO’s two far-flung outposts, she’s doing just that.