Meet Nascar Country’s Contemporary Art Dealer

Chandra Johnson hosts the international art world at her North Carolina gallery.

Chandra Johnson has a busy week. She’s getting ready to open an exhibition of Elliott Puckette’s painting at her Charlotte gallery, and she’s not only expecting a crowd for the public reception, she’s also hosting a dinner with the artist, a group of local collectors, and a delegation from the North Carolina Museum of Art on the porch of the 1920s bungalow that her space shares with a café and a men’s boutique. Despite her packed schedule, she’s generous and affable as she takes time to recount how she left her life as a model, started collecting art, married a Nascar driver, and moved her primary residence from New York to North Carolina, where she set up a distinctly Southern gallery with an international profile.

She opened Southern Comfort Gallery (SoCo) in 2015 with an exhibition of photography by a group of artists that first came to her attention in New York, and her ambition for SoCo’s program has always spanned those two worlds. While some dealers outside major art capitals treat their spaces as home offices and conduct sales at a movable feast of international art fairs, Johnson has made it her mission to bring the art world to Charlotte, mounting exhibitions that draw international attention as they introduce artists from around the globe to a local  audience. “The goal is to elevate the conversation in Charlotte, and inevitably the South, as we push our own program further,” she says. “And we try to get artists in front of our regional collector base.”

A Southerner by birth, Johnson grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and attended the University of Oklahoma. After working in Europe as a model, she moved to New York City, where she met her husband Jimmy Johnson. He might not be a household name in art circles, but Jimmy is Nascar royalty, having won the sport’s championship seven times. They started collecting art together, beginning with photography and then branching out to other media. “When we’re considering something for our collection, I’m a little more tormented over it than my husband is,” Johnson says. “He just waltzes in and says, ‘I like it. Let’s buy it.”

Work by Elliott Puckette at SoCo Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As the couple put down roots in Charlotte—home of many racing teams and Nascar’s Hall of Fame—Johnson began organizing pop-up exhibitions around the city. While scouting spaces for an upcoming show, she spotted the bungalow, and with her neighbors at Tabor, the menswear shop, she decided to open a permanent space in the building, which they renovated with local architect Perry Poole. “The idea was to bring in artists from our generation who were making fresh work,” Johnson says. “I had no idea where it would go from there.”

The first solo exhibition she mounted was a series of Liz Nielsen’s angular, colorful photograms. “Chandra introduced me to her community and just brought me in,” says Nielsen, who went so far as to take a break from her honeymoon to sing Johnson’s praises. “She’s very open. She runs her gallery like a relationship as well as a business.” Recent exhibitions at SoCo have ranged from geometric, richly toned works on paper by Halsey Hathaway to Ken Van Sickle’s evocative photographs of life in 1950s New York.

Introducing artists to people who aren’t necessarily in the market for a painting is important for Johnson. The gallery hosts a series of public talks and events—for example, last year, San Francisco artist Clare Rojas drew a crowd for a candlelit performance staged beside a site-specific painting that covered one of the gallery’s walls and, in addition to its main exhibition space and a private viewing room, Soco also houses a bookstore.

Work by Elliott Puckette at SoCo Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Johnson also promotes contemporary art initiatives in Charlotte and throughout the South. For prospective visitors, she recommends veteran Charlotte dealer Jerald Melberg’s gallery, the Bechtler Museum, and the Mint Museum, where she is currently on the board. “Everybody can take a deep breath and really immerse themselves in the work,” says Johnson. “That’s what’s great about coming to a smaller city.”

As for the future of SoCo, Johnson would like to do a design show—but she’s not clear yet on what tack she will take. In the meantime, the Puckette exhibition runs through Oct. 27, and Johnson is confident that the artist’s expressive ink-on paper drawings will be well-received. “Her work varies between a very lyrical and a very sharp line,” Johnson says. “These are more of the lyrical ones in this exhibition. I think Charlotte will really respond to them.”

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