If you have attended an art event in the city of Savannah at any time in the past 20 years, you have probably met Susan Laney. There she is in deep conversation with an artist or patron, discussing the work as she adjusts her ever-present stack of bracelets, or connecting two people who know her, of course, but not each other. At a certain kind of party, Laney can’t take more than a few steps without being swept up into a hug. The art world is her world, so when it came time to hang her own shingle, she did things her way.
“Drive west on Mills B Lane and look for the doors,” she tells first-time visitors to Laney Contemporary. Nine feet tall and chartreuse, those doors provide a singular pop of color for the fortress-like building set far back on a lot dotted with towering sweetgum and magnolia trees. No matter where you’re headed to or from, it’s a curiosity, an invitation to look. That’s just what Laney intended.
After her husband, Frank Ellsworth, and his business partner bought the building in 2015, he told Laney he thought she should open a gallery on the second floor. “I wasn’t sure,” she says, “but then I saw it. Yes, I’m off the beaten path. Yes, people will have to find me. But it’s a beautiful space, it’s not far from downtown, and we have room for events and performance art. Everything about it felt right.” Constructed in 1981 for the Polote Corporation, in architect Lee Meyer’s signature Brutalist style, the building had an interesting, if not entirely substantiated, pedigree: It’s rumored to have served as local campaign headquarters during Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential run. (That might explain the mirrored bar room.) The clincher for Laney, though, was more a practical perk no downtown gallery could claim: plenty of parking.
In her two decades as a fine art consultant, curator and gallerist, Laney has learned the fine art business like the back of her hand. When she moved to the city in 1992 to study at Savannah College of Art and Design, though, she was more concerned with seeing than selling. “I was doing large-format palladium prints,” she says. “I loved to look at something and figure out how to capture it, then discover the differences between the two.”
Soon, she met Jack Leigh, a photographer and Savannah native best known for his documentary-style work, who ran a namesake gallery at the corner of Abercorn and Oglethorpe. “Meeting Jack was a game-changer,” she says. “He’s the reason I stayed in Savannah. He was so incredibly authentic.” Toward the end of Laney’s 13-year stint as his gallery director, Leigh was diagnosed with cancer, and before he passed away in 2004 he told her to keep the doors open as long as it was profitable. She held on until late 2007, and her timing was uncanny: The recession hit a few months later, shuttering scores of galleries and grinding the art market to a halt. Laney likes to say they went out “with champagne in their glasses.”
Next, she embarked on a creative walkabout to clear her head. She spent three months in Lacoste, France as an artist-in-residence, got certified as a master gardener through a University of Georgia extension program, and organized photography workshops on Ossabaw Island. She helped Paul Kopeikin, a Los Angeles gallerist, oversee booths at art fairs in New York and Miami. She continued to represent the Jack Leigh estate, and became an independent dealer for other artists as well. In 2010, she started managing the Oglethorpe Gallery, and curated a fundraiser show for Haiti following the earthquake. When her daughter Stella was born that same year, running a business out of her house became a little more complicated, but she soldiered on.
“When Frank bought the building, I had just signed a contract to curate six shows for SCAD, and I was curating marquee exhibitions for the Westobou Festival in Augusta,” she says. “Across all my projects, I was working 90 hours a week. For the first six months, it was just a computer and a desk and me.” Eventually, she refinished the floors, painted the walls, and began taking appointments with clients. Last September, after expanding to accommodate a works-on-paper room, Laney Contemporary opened to great fanfare: more than 700 people filled the gallery, spilling out onto the terrace and the lawn.
On a brisk fall afternoon, Susan tucked her petite frame into a purple chair next to a trio of Katherine Sandoz paintings, reflecting. “Everything is experience that builds,” she says. “I’m still constantly trying to educate myself, because I want to offer something special here, and I want to show the work of artists that I’m passionate about.”
When a 2017 Vogue article hailed Laney Contemporary as a major force of Savannah’s creative renaissance, Laney was delighted, if not exactly surprised. “For so long, Savannah was primarily a destination for people drawn to our history,” she says. “Now we’re being named as this tastemaker, and it’s because of our present culture.”
It’s no accident, then, that her gallery’s walls read like a story of Savannah, circa now: Sandoz’s juicy landscapes, Will Penny’s 3-D panels, Marcus Kenney’s gritty-glam assemblages, Betsy Cain’s gestural abstract paintings, Stephanie Howard’s meticulous pen-and-ink drawings, Todd Schroeder’s conceptual installations, Pamela Wiley’s intricately plotted quiltwork. Forthcoming exhibitions include Ansley West Rivers’ large-format environmental photographs and Eny Lee Parker’s furniture and ceramics.
Though Laney notes a recent influx of art-savvy residents, her most enduring call is the viability and self-determination of the city she calls home. “There’s a richness to a collection that’s regionally based,” she says. “It means you’re invested. Savannah can support a community of artists. A lot of the change is grassroots, on the outskirts. Look at me—I didn’t buy a building in the middle of downtown. I’m making this work.”