“This could be our final exhibit” are words that send a shiver down the back of any art community. And there they were, included in an email from Chuck Swanson, 69, announcing the “Full Circle” show at his gallery Swanson Contemporary at 638 E. Market St. in NuLu. We spoke with Swanson about why the gallery might close, what its loss would mean and possible future plans.
LEO: This news is a surprise. Are you closing the gallery and retiring? Your email said the current exhibition ‘could be’ the last show.
Chuck Swanson: Nothing is determined except that we will almost certainly be closing the current location after the first of the year. I am actively seeking ways to stay open or reemerge in a new location, new format, even with a new partner. I sold the building [that houses Swanson Contemporary and an apartment] earlier this year and now lease. I have the option to re-lease, and I’ve looked for other spots in Germantown, Portland [and] in the Barret Avenue area. I might change the gallery to a ‘project space’ or do pop-up shows.
I was concerned your health has caused you to have to retire. Sounds like that’s not quite the case.
I’m OK today. There’s not ever been a proper diagnosis … I came down with shingles in 2017. It migrated to my spine and neck, and I had a fever for 50 days. I was out of the hospital, went back in again. Nothing had an effect. Have nausea every day and a lot of pain in my legs. I’ve done a lot of physical therapy.
So, you’re not retiring?
I could just retire, but I’m still so interested in keeping in the game. Don’t feel like it. Once I do it, though, I might like it. But artists don’t really retire.
Louisville will be the lesser without a gallery in town with the name of Swanson on it. You’ve been around for over 30 years.
I started out [in Louisville] at the Olde Towne Gallery in the Schuster Building in The Highlands. I bought the business in 1982, then changed the name to Swanson Gallery after one year. Smoothie King is there now. Had Laura Ross and Bill Carner show there [who are in the current ‘Full Circle’ exhibition]. Then an old high school and college friend, Lynn Cralle, … and I bought the building at 1377 Bardstown Road [and named it Swanson Cralle]. That was in 1988. We were the first people to show [internationally known glassblower] Stephen [Rolfe] Powell in Louisville. We did some ambitious shows … we did some funny shows too. Then we opened Swanson Cralle East Market in 1998.
Cralle sold her share of the business to Susan Reed five years later, and both galleries became Swanson Reed?
Yes … I’ve had two partners, Lynn and Susan. We closed The Highlands location in 2011 and Susan got out of the business. I renamed [the gallery in NuLu] Swanson Contemporary.
What are some of your favorite exhibitions?
It’s a whole series from 2001 to going on 2005. It was an exciting time for me as a curator and gallerist. Valerie [Sullivan] Fuchs, Cynthia Norton, Russ [Hulsey], Thaniel [Ion Lee], Thomas DeLisle. We were showing these people one after another. Dynamic exhibitions and we got big crowds. It was a golden era.
How has the local art scene changed over the years?
Art in Louisville is in a shakier place than it has been, I think. This doesn’t help it any … There were nine viable galleries down here 10 years ago. Very different than it used to be … People have smaller houses, don’t need art. A lot of millennials, currently at least, are not in a position to buy things. It’s a mobile generation.
So, got any other plans?
I think, if I open another space, there will be a gap. Take some time off, with some time in the studio. Felt tethered to this business. I do want to travel more — our son lives in Germany in Berlin … [My wife] Karolle is retired and wants me to not be working as much as I am. I’m just not ready for it to end. •