Raleigh lost a prominent advocate for the arts at the end of January when Lee Hansley, who ran his namesake gallery in Raleigh for twenty-five years, died at age seventy-one.
After graduating from high school in Roanoke Rapids, Hansley came to UNC-Chapel Hill to study journalism. He spent most of the 1970s working as a newspaper editor in various North Carolina towns. Next, he became a curator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem in the 1980s, a decade during which he also did public-relations work at WUNC, earned a master’s degree in art history at UNC, and independently curated exhibits. In 1991, he left radio behind and devoted himself full-time to his passion for art.
Donna Clark, a longtime friend, met Hansley when they both worked in public radio. “Even back then, Lee was ambitious and had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve,” she says, “to discourage what he considered frivolous art and establish a gallery that would engage artists of high quality that could make an enriching difference in people’s lives.”
In 1993, he opened Lee Hansley Gallery in the Capital Club Building in downtown Raleigh, promoting modernist art from North Carolina in particular and the Southeast in general—an area in which, he was not shy to tell you, he considered himself the preeminent authority. He championed the likes of Edith London, Gregory Ivy, and George Bireline. In 1999, Hansley moved the gallery to the now-bustling Glenwood South area, setting up shop in a small, intimate historic home with vintage charm. In 2016, Hansley moved again, this time to Dock 1053, a sleek contemporary space that would turn out to be the gallery’s final home.
Hansley was known for going beyond what was expected of a curator to enhance the value of his artists’ creations by supplying promotional materials for an exhibit or project at his own expense. It was not unusual for Hansley to drive all night to pick up a piece he liked.
“If Lee was on your side, he would go to bat for you,” Clark says. James Taylor and Carole King said it best. You’ve got a friend.
Everyone who met Hansley agreed that he was opinionated, outspoken, not afraid of conflict, and not without critics—or criticisms for those who did not share his tastes in art, music, fine dining, theater, and politics. Hansley knew who he was and who he wasn’t. He was a born-and-bred Tar Heel, a passionate yellow-dog Democrat, and proud of it. He didn’t mince words. There was no moral ambiguity about him, and he never apologized for anything.
“I admired his boldness and the way he stood up for what he believed in,” Clark says. “His artists were lucky to have him represent them.”
Richard Marshall was a young artist straight off the boat from England when he met Hansley in 1993 and became an early exhibitor at the Capital Club Building. They became fast friends, and Marshall gave a provoking eulogy at Hansley’s funeral.
“Lee was a man of exquisite cosmopolitan tastes, a classic Southern raconteur who spoke the truth whether you wanted to hear it or not, though his opinions sometimes clashed with traditional tastes,” Marshall said.
Ashlynn Browning, a local abstract oil painter, was also an early exhibitor—one of many new faces looking for representation to whom Hansley offered a first break.
“Lee Hansley was dedicated to his stable of artists, while always keeping an eye out for new talent to nurture,” she says. “He was brazenly opinionated, blunt, acerbic, kind, often shocking, and always hilarious. Lee believed in my work and took me on as a twenty-five-year-old novice straight out of grad school. I will miss his wit, his insights, his unwavering dedication to the arts, and all the flavor he added to Raleigh. They don’t make many Lee Hansleys, and his absence will be deeply felt, but his impact on the North Carolina art scene will live on.”
Ann Thomas was also an early exhibitor of Hansley’s, and they quickly became friends.
“Lee Hansley had an extensive knowledge of the art and artists of the Southeast, and he made it a mission to see that those artists who were alive were recognized, and that those no longer living were not forgotten,” she says. “It was my good fortune to be one of those artists, and I am deeply grateful for his support.”
Hansley also loved working with city planners, raising money, and drawing up plans and proposals for public art in urban spaces. He was a member of almost every board and committee imaginable, including the Halifax County Arts Council Board of Directors, the National Public Radio PR Council, and the Raleigh Arts Commission, to name just a few of the many organizations he worked with.
“Lee was an art warrior for artists, collectors, and the public,” says friend and colleague Betsy Buford. “He was committed to placing art in public places. Public service and improving the spaces where art was shown in Raleigh was more important to him than his gallery work. He believed that art called to the optimism within us and beckoned us to breathe. He invited us to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, laugh, resist, and imagine art as an antidote to our times.”
Beyond his public contributions, Hansley was proudest of working on the task force that led to the creation of Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts as we know it today.
“We have lost a great resource in Lee,” Marshall says. “He was never a chair-padder. If he was on a committee or board, things happened.”
Lee Hansley wanted to make the world better by making it more beautiful, and he believed that an appreciation of art could create a radical change.
“Lee Hansley has been a potent influence in the Triangle for more than thirty years, and I think he really helped change the way we look at art,” Clark says. “His greatest legacy, I think, is his effort to promote North Carolina artists and his sense of the possible.”
Thank you, Lee. You were a friend.
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Glenwood South is bustling now, not when Lee Hansley Gallery first opened there.