Chandra Johnson’s SOCO Gallery Focuses On Photography

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Charlotte’s brand new SOCO gallery is everything you’d expect given its name. Located on Providence Road, the warmly-lit gallery is housed in a renovated 1920’s bungalow, with whitewashed walls and shiny wooden floors. The grounds are thoughtfully dotted with lush gardens and a front porch sits attached to the space. In every way, SOCO eschews the coldness and exclusivity that characterize many a fine art gallery, giving its nod instead to the surrounding southern culture that the gallery and founder Chandra Johnson call home.

It’s clear from talking with Johnson for even a moment that the choices behind the space were a true labor of love from the woman running the show. Like the gallery, Johnson is herself warm and inviting, and her passion infectious. Her eyes almost literally light up and she becomes animated each time she cracks open a book to show you a “truly fantastic southern photographer” or points out the “amazing” photographic technique behind one of the pieces hanging in her gallery.

The Queen City was just the right place for the philosophy behind SOCO.

“I love how open and warm our art community is,” says Johnson. “When we opened the doors of SOCO, people poured in with support and other local galleries have been extremely encouraging and helpful.”

Currently, SOCO specializes in photography and features contemporary artists that range from the newly-emerging to the internationally-recognized. The attached boutique bookstore with a constantly-updated limited collection of art, architecture, and design books is a natural addition in lieu of Johnson’s other love: art history and research.

“Our book philosophy mirrors our exhibition mission: to replace titles with new ones as they are sold to always keep it fresh,” Johnson explains. “The bookshop is the appetizer to the entrée of the gallery. If someone is unable to buy a piece of art, they can buy a book. It’s an education; they can research, they can learn.”

For someone with such passion for art, the gallery was an inevitable step.

Johnson explains that she was constantly researching art and artists during her free time anyway, and as immersing herself in the world started to “take over her life,” she decided she simply had to channel everything she was taking in to start the business.

The initial seeds of SOCO gallery grew out of various pop-up exhibitions Johnson spearheaded over the years in Dallas and in Charlotte, including exhibitions at the Mint Museum in uptown. Experimentation with the form solidified Johnson’s resolve, and just five months ago opened SOCO’s doors.

Born in Oklahoma, Johnson spent time in her 20’s traveling the world as a model, and soaking up the arts scenes in LA, New York, and Paris. She found herself drawn in particular to the photography that managed to blur fashion and fine art, and names photographers Irving Penn and William Eggleson among her favorite influences.

After she moved with her family to Charlotte 11 years ago, she continued to immerse herself in the art world in any way possible – collecting, traveling, attending art fairs, museums, and galleries.

“I love the visual, love challenging the eye, and love discovering new things,” she shares. “And the best part of art is it connects you to this broad world. That’s the most amazing thing about it.”

Bringing a slice of this world to Charlotte began with a lot of hard work and the long process behind creating an exhibit. Johnson and her team start with the overall theme. For group shows, they build a story and look for artists that fit into the narrative and for solo exhibitions, SOCO seeks artists with a body of work that fits into the program. From there comes studio visits and careful scheduling. After getting an exhibition date, Johnson works with the artist to select each piece of work that will be in the show and, as she puts it, that is just the beginning.

She intends to do between four and five exhibitions a year, and says SOCO is already scheduled out until next April with exhibitions and collaborations intended to expose guests to new works and challenge the viewers’ eye.

Johnson will continue to use various events at SOCO as a platform to promote the handpicked artists she loves and believes in so deeply. Collectors and gallery-comers are given the opportunity not only to soak in carefully curated pieces, but also to hear about the practice and process behind the work.

“Charlotte is extremely open to learning about our program,” she says. “A lot of the work we are showing would only be on view in New York or LA, and it brings me such joy to share it with my hometown.”