Chandra Johnson's Art Lover's Guide to Charlotte, North Carolina

When many people think of Charlotte, North Carolina, they know it as a banking hub and the home of NASCAR, but lately it’s emerging as a destination with impeccably curated boutiques, an array of artisan-made goods, and an arts scene supported by great galleries and iconic museums. Curious about what an art-minded visitor shouldn’t miss while visiting the Queen City, we asked Chandra Johnson, owner of SOCO Gallery and a passionate art collector, for some tips. Johnson, who is married to legendary NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson (and a former supermodel) is an avid art collector with a keen eye, photographic memory for art history facts, and a passion for sharing her love of contemporary art with those around her. Here, she shares the upcoming exhibitions worth planning for, where to find the best cup of coffee in North Carolina, and why no one should leave Charlotte without making a trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Cool and Contemporary
First stop is Johnson’s SOCO Gallery (421 Providence Road, 980.498.2881), which Johnson opened in May of 2015 in a 1929 bungalow with a gorgeous front porch and a sweet courtyard in the Myers Park neighborhood in Charlotte. The contemporary art space feels more like a good friend’s stylishly appointed home than somewhere you might experience world-class art exhibitions or purchase a piece for your collection, but that’s the point.

“The space really inspired me,” says Johnson. “It’s Southern, intimate. You feel like you’re walking into someone’s home, but when you go inside, it’s an art gallery. When I first saw the space, I had visions of people who ride their bike over, have a cup of coffee, and look at really great art.” About that coffee: On weekends, visitors to the gallery can enjoy Not Just Coffee’s pop-up coffee bar located in the center of the space. “It’s the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, not just in Charlotte, but in the world. It does take a bit of time, but it’s worth the wait.”

SOCO Gallery shares a space with the men’s shop Tabor, the brother shop to Charlotte’s world-renowned Capitol boutique (4010 Sharon Road, 704.366.0388). The gallery also features an expertly curated book shop, featuring art and design books as well as some lifestyle and cookbooks. “You walk into the bookshop first,” says Chandra. “I want everyone to come in and browse and feel like they could acquire something. If you can’t afford a piece of art on the walls you could still buy a book for $25.”

Currently, SOCO Gallery is hosting “Saturdays,” an exhibition featuring work by Burk Uzzle, Raymond PettibonJulie Mehretu, and Mallory Page, among others. Come fall, SOCO Gallery will be featuring three new exhibitions, beginning with photographer Ken Van Sickle in September. Horst P. Horst’s iconic photography archives will be shown in October, followed by the painter Clare Rojas in November. Each show will last between five and six weeks and is designed to immerse the public in the artist’s work.

Of the Charlotte gallery scene, Johnson says, “It’s a close knit group and we all send each other visitors.” For visitors coming to collect and browse, she recommends LaCa Projects (1429 Bryant Street, 704.837.1688), which features Latin American Contemporary Art, and Jerald Melberg Gallery (625 South Sharon Amity Road, 704.365.3000), which opened in 1983 and represents nationally and internationally known artists.

“You don’t have to live in New York anymore to be exposed to these great contemporary artists,” says Johnson. “That’s what’s so exciting—contemporary art galleries are bringing in artists from New York, L.A.”

One of the big draws for emerging artists is the McColl Center for Art and Innovation’s Artists-in-Residence program. The contemporary art center is located in a converted church, and allows visitors to view exhibitions while connecting with the artists in their open studios. “The McColl Center is a huge player, introducing our community to these artists and new ways of thinking about art,” Johnson says.

Must-See Museums
“When I moved to Charlotte, there was just the one Mint Museum on Randolph,” Johnson remembers, referring to the original Mint Museum Randolph of Charlotte (2730 Randolph Road, 704.337.2000), the oldest art museum in North Carolina where Chandra serves on the Board today. The Mint Museum, housed in a building that was part of the original U.S. Mint, established the city as a destination for art lovers looking to view important collections and experience a critical part of the nation’s history.

In the past five years, Charlotte’s museum scene has grown exponentially, with three new museums, The Mint Museum Uptown, followed by the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (420 South Tryon Street, 704.353.9200), and The Harvey B. Gantt Center (551 South Tryon Street, 704.547.3700) for African-American Arts and Culture opening Uptown. The gorgeous Romare Bearden Park was built behind these museums, named for the famous North Carolina-born artist.

For those traveling to Charlotte this summer, Johnson recommends starting at The Mint Museum Uptown for its “80 Years of Photography at the Mint” exhibition, running through mid-September. “The president of the Mint is a photography historian, and she curated the show herself,” explains Johnson. What’s really important about this show is that it highlights the Mint’s unique role in the history of photography and showcases some of the most provocative photos in its renowned permanent collection. “The Mint started collecting photography way before it was cool.”

Another exhibition Johnson recommends catching this summer is “The House that Modernism Built” at the Bechtler, right across the street from The Mint Uptown. This exhibition features textiles and furniture alongside art that highlights the role the modern aesthetic plays in our lives. (Johnson’s own Charlotte Perriand desk and Fritz Hansen chair, which are normally found in the SOCO Gallery, is on loan to the exhibition.)

This fall, art history buffs should mark their calendars for the rare, seminal exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which will run from October until January at The Mint Museum Uptown.  The exhibition is the very first time this group of artists has been presented together, and Charlotte is its only stop on the East Coast, one of only three stops in the nation. The exhibition will feature more than 50 major paintings by female artists from the U.S. who were painting in the 1940s and 1950s during the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Mary Abbott, Elaine de Kooning, Judith Godwin, and more.

If you feel the need to balance out your art-focused Charlotte itinerary, Johnson has one more museum to add to your list that’s sure to be a hit with the kids (and husbands who favor fast cars): The NASCAR Hall of Fame (400 East Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., 704.654.4400). The 150,000 square foot space has something for everyone, even those who don’t follow the sport. It’s an educational, interactive experience with a famous gift shop where Johnson recommends picking up a No. 48 Jimmie Johnson hat.

Where to Refuel During Your Tour
While you’re at the Mint Museum Uptown, Johnson suggests lunch at Halcyon, a farm to table restaurant with outdoor seating and fantastic cocktails and fried chicken. If you want to step outside the museum for a pick-me-up between exhibitions, Johnson recommends the 7th Street Public Market (224 E. 7th Street) for a French-style lunch. This indoor market features a multitude of local stands selling local produce, treats, and gourmet dining options. Johnson’s favorite coffee, Not Just Coffee, has a booth there, or you can fuel up on her other favorite pick-me-up, fresh pressed juice from Viva Raw.

For dinner, Johnson recommends Good Food on Montford (1701 Montford Drive, 704.525.0881), where the pork bun is “heaven.” For lighter fare, she suggests Customshop (1601 Elizabeth Ave., 704.333.3396), which has great handcrafted cocktails and cheeses. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy an intimate dinner, Johnson recommends Barrington’s (7822 Fairview Road, 704.364.5755). “The food there never gets old, and I know because Jimmie and I have been coming here for 13 years to sit at the bar for a date night,” she says. “It’s a tiny, special place.”