The man comes around: A Louisville gallerist for 25 years, Chuck Swanson works all sides of the city’s art scene
Chuck SwansonTo many fathers it would be a nightmare: A son, home from college, wants to use your business property (in this case a temporarily unoccupied apartment) for a rock concert.For artist and gallery owner Chuck Swanson, however, it seemed like a great opportunity. Not only was he able to bond with his son Cody, who performed at the event back in December, he also got a firsthand view into what his son’s peer group finds interesting and exciting.No. This was not the embarrassing desperation of a mid-life crisis. It was a natural venture for a man who identifies deeply with change.“I’m a curious person. I want to see what’s next,” Swanson says.Still, he admits to being startled when he accidentally walked in on a young couple “making out” in the laundry room. He adds apologetically, “It had been years since I had been to a party where people would make out.” He laughs.In some circles, people see the arts as a doorway into the world of the establishment: an arena of black-tie affairs, art auctions and other opportunities to ingratiate themselves to the pillars of the community.But Chuck Swanson has always come to art through a different door. That is evident in the experiences and achievements he has racked up over the past 25 years — an ongoing career that makes him one of Louisville’s most experienced gallerists. He opened a gallery at Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway in October 1982, when there were few art galleries in Louisville, and Swanson Reed Contemporary 10 years ago when the East Market Street art zone was in its nascent stage.No tux requiredIt is remarkable how Swanson’s walk through Louisville’s art world stands in contrast to the glitz reflected on the society pages. Amid the churning crowds of the downtown First Friday Gallery Hops, if you didn’t know he owned Swanson Reed Contemporary gallery you might not notice him at all. Many of the people you’ll see there are better dressed for, and otherwise attentive to, being noticed. To say as much is no insult to Swanson, merely an observation about a generally introverted person who gets more pleasure from directing the spotlight to other artists.Swanson’s career is also woven into the institutional workings of the art community. He recently joined the Louisville Visual Art Association’s board of directors. He has served on the board of the East Downtown Business Association and has been vice president of both the defunct Artswatch and LOOK, a Louisville area consortium of art galleries.But as Susan Reed, Swanson’s partner since 2003, puts it, “He’s never been about the money.”Instead, says Reed, Swanson regards and often treats the gallery as a community-based center. Along with exhibitions, Swanson has used his gallery for a variety of performances and events — musical and otherwise. He says he recently read about a musician who performs with a laptop, complaining about electronic music often being performed in “art galleries where people nod.”He adds, “I laughed and thought, ‘Yes, that sounds like us.’” He speaks with pride about a performance earlier this year by Dmitry Strakovsky, a University of Kentucky assistant professor of new media. The performance, entitled “Top 10 Asian Brands,” featured Strakovsky doing Tuvan throat singing while chanting a list of Asian “brands” (Sony and Hello Kitty, among others). The performance was “really provocative,” Swanson says, and asserts that Strakovsky was “a really good performer.” (See www.shiftingplanes.org/work.php.)In December 2005, Swanson opened his space so the 8664 campaign could make its case during a hop. (8664 now has its own space at 327 E. Market St.) Swanson saw that hop, which was more like a civic event, as coming full circle. He majored in social studies at the University of Kentucky, and he enthusiastically supports new urbanism.“I am an urban advocate,” he says. “Cities have to have a strong center.”As for the current Ohio River Bridges Project, which includes a planned expansion of Spaghetti Junction, he thinks it “gives preference to automobiles and not the people in the city.”Recently, in a much sadder circumstance, Swanson hosted a wake for his friend, former tenant and gallery artist Jamie Tittle, who died of complications from leukemia in June. Tittle’s former apartment is above the gallery on East Market. Swanson describes the event as “hard,” but he was glad he could offer the gallery and the apartment as appropriate places to grieve and remember.Building an art businessSix years after running the gallery in the space he had purchased in 1982 in the Schuster Building at Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway, Swanson took on Lynn Cralle as a business partner and moved the gallery to 1377 Bardstown Road. (It was called Swanson Cralle then; it’s now known as now Swanson Reed Gallery.) The location soon became an established venue for mature work from area artists such as Rodney Hatfield and Bob Lockhart.In the early 1990s, Swanson and Cralle took the risk of both showing and, in various ways, supporting the folk and outsider artists Mark Anthony Mulligan and Marvin Finn. Those artists have since been represented in significant collections, museums and exhibitions around the country.But Swanson pushed the envelope again in 1998, when Swanson Cralle opened the East Market Street location — now known as Swanson Reed Contemporary. The focus there was on presenting art that is, as Swanson terms it, “worthy of critical discourse.” He managed the new location while Cralle maintained the steady business on Bardstown Road, which tended to focus on domestic and functional merchandise.Cralle believes their efforts helped cultivate a mature audience for art in Louisville. She groans over the memory of customers who uttered the dreaded words — things like “my child could do that” — when they opened. By the time she sold her share of the business to Susan Reed in 2003, though, those comments had ceased.Swanson is amused by misperceptions of gallery owners as “rich people who wheel and deal.” His wife, Karolle Swanson, says that when her former coworkers learned her husband owned a gallery, they assumed she only worked for city government out of a sense of community service. Such perceptions are “far from the truth,” Chuck says. “Her salary paid the bills.”A closing avertedOver the years, with both Reed and Cralle, Swanson devised different businesses and different partnerships to clarify and separate responsibilities, and limit liabilities. Swanson and Cralle own the building where the Bardstown Road gallery is located, but Swanson and Reed own the gallery businesses on Bardstown Road and on East Market Street.Rumors spread in the art community earlier this year that Swanson Reed would close. It turns out they were not unfounded. Swanson and Cralle began evaluating the real estate value of the Bardstown Road location, which tempted them to consider selling. (Reed, who earns a majority of her income through her own art therapy practice, isn’t dependent on the gallery business.)In late May, Swanson admits, he and Reed drafted a press release to announce the gallery closing. But on the day it was to go out, Reed called and told Swanson she had changed her mind. She insisted, “Let’s recommit.” Since then, Swanson has gotten more deeply involved in the Bardstown Road location than he has in years. In July, Chuck and Karolle Swanson and Reed went on a buying spree at a Chicago trade show, picking up new works for the gallery.Sussing out talentIn the late 1990s, while serving on the exhibitions committee for the non-profit Artswatch, Swanson became interested in new talent, new media and new ideas in place at the “underground” 953 Gallery on Clay Street. He soon began inviting many of the artists to show at Swanson Reed Contemporary, people like Russel Hulsey, Thomas DeLisle and Valerie Fuchs. He even allowed some artists to curate exhibitions, such as “About Skin,” which were highly provocative by Louisville standards. “It wasn’t just the nudity,” Swanson insists. “Most people at that time had not seen video as art in Louisville.” He says some visitors found it “mystifying.”That generation of artists, in turn, recognizes and appreciates Swanson’s efforts. Fuchs says, “Chuck Swanson is always willing to take a risk — especially on new forms like video. We’re lucky to have him.”Hulsey says Swanson is “extremely progressive and forward thinking,” and he has a reason to believe it. In 2002, Swanson went out on a limb and invited Hulsey, then in his mid-20s, to fill in a 10-day slot in his gallery’s schedule with a solo video installation.Hulsey was interested. The one catch was that he wanted to use a then-rare, high-end holographic video projection system. Swanson didn’t flinch; he put the $4,000 projector on his credit card. It was a bold move.The work, “Conducting Silence,” featured a projection of Louisville Orchestra associate conductor Robert Franz conducting in silence.Julien Robson, the Speed Art Museum’s curator of contemporary art, says the show “raised the bar” for Louisville gallery exhibitions. Swanson and Robson helped convince collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown to purchase it for the Speed.“It was a huge moment for me,” Hulsey says. The event led to his first museum exhibition at the Speed and subsequent exhibitions in art centers from California to Europe and Asia. Swanson recalls these events, a career highlight, with obvious pride; he smiles and paces excitedly as he describes them.Always a to-do listWhen Swanson speaks, he tends to fret a bit, exhibiting the apprehension of an idealist who fears getting carried away while too many fundamental chores remain undone. If he reaches a plateau in his conversations, he will instinctively look to see the time, apologize for the disruption and, with a bemoaned explanation, list some of the remaining tasks of his day.In prominent galleries in New York, Los Angeles and London, a gallery director will often have a manager and other assistants, and the owner/director is expected to dwell on the loftier aspects of the art business. But in Louisville, Swanson and other gallery owners must focus on keeping costs down and finding supplemental income by, for example, becoming landlords. (Swanson owns both buildings the two galleries inhabit and accompanying rental properties). They have to navigate the extremes of the ethereal and the all-too-terrestrial.Still, Swanson finds an upside to the modest art market in Louisville: It is “supportive and cooperative, not competitive, and that’s nice.”That cooperation is illustrated in a story Swanson tells. He recalls being prompted by younger artists to host a concert by a French techno musician who, because of mismanaged promotions in Nashville, hoped to stop in Louisville on his way to Chicago and recoup his losses from the night before. Swanson agreed.The morning of the show, he found a man with a backpack sleeping by the front door of the gallery. He thought the man was homeless. Then he realized he was the artist for that evening.Swanson made a phone call, and soon the musician had a place to shower, eat and sleep. The performance was well attended. Someone in the crowd gave the musician a ride to Chicago, and people stayed up late talking after the performance.Swanson says he later heard that the musician had returned to France thinking Louisville was the greatest place he’d visited on his tour. Contact the writer at email@example.com.