Watters Gallery: Gentle Men of Art - Art Collector

Issue 28 April-June 2004

Two fine old gentlemen of contemporary art, Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, tell Carmel Dwyer about the last 40 years of art business.

Each summer, Frank Watters disappears to his rural hideaway, a house on top of the Great Dividing Range in a remote part of the Hunter Valley region. Contactable only by arrangement, he spends the summers enjoying the hot dry days and cool nights of the highland climate. He gardens, reads, thinks, has a steady stream of friends and artists up to stay.

His long time business partner in Watters Gallery, Geoffrey Legge, often undertakes to wax the floors as part of the summer ritual, an act that is as symbolic as it is generous. Theirs is a unique alliance, marked by tolerance, admiration and longevity. Together with Legge’s wife Alex, they have been in business for 40 years – probably the longest running gallery in Australia with the same directors.

Since the beginning, Alex has been the gallery’s full-time accountant. This is one of the secrets of their success, Geoffrey believes. With Alex watching over the figures Watters has managed to avoid one of the pitfalls of small businesses – not having a clear picture of financial circumstances. Geoffrey, an economist started out as a financial partner but within five years had come on staff. “Wasn’t it clever finding an accountant and economist as partners?” says Frank Watters.

Watters came form the Hunter region, left school at 15 and worked in a coal mine with surveyors. When he came to Sydney as a young man he had a number of humble jobs but his interest in art was keen from the beginning and he was painting and collecting pictures from his early adulthood. Everything he earned he spent on art. Eventually one of the city’s most important dealers of the day, Barry Stern, whose stable included up and comers like Ken Whisson, gave the young Watters a job. Fate sent the young couple, Geoffrey and Alex Legge, to live next door to the Barry Stern Gallery.

Legge had himself been searching for something around the time he and Alex met Frank Watters. In 1963, after hitch-hiking overland from Melbourne to London, he was offered a job back in Sydney which he accepted. Not knowing anyone in Sydney, Legge, after finishing work at 4:30 in the afternoon, would wander into the art gallery next door looking for company and conversation. And the friendship between Watters and the Legges grew. After all these years Frank Watters cheerfully claims that he and the Legges are probably closer friends than ever.

Today, Watters lives above his gallery in a flat packed with art. Its setting, which includes an exotic roof garden, is as romantic as any bohemian apartment in Paris. But in the early days of the business, the gallery operated out of small premises in Liverpool St and Watters lived with the Legges at their Paddington home. A few years later they found the current premises on Riley St, East Sydney which has remained one of the fixtures of the serious art market in Sydney ever since.

The realities of the art business were somewhat different from the preconceptions that the Legges or Watters might have had in the beginning. Observing the success of Barry Stern, Geoffrey Legge imagined that he would be a silent partner and that Watters would run the business with Alex. Gradually, both out of necessity and inclination he became more involved.

They started the gallery with a number of guiding principles. “We started off with the idea that we were going to find new artists, not go around and try and nick artists from other galleries,” says Watters.

Eventually, of course, some artists did come from other galleries, including Whisson himself. Watters recalls the first time he saw Whisson’s work at Barry Stern’s: “He was at Barry Stern in the first show I worked on and when I saw the pictures I thought they were the worst paintings I had ever seen. After a week I began to see something and by the end of the show I thought they were wonderful.”

As it turned out, the real reputation of Watters gallery, virtually from the beginning, was its unmatched ability to spot talent. It is a reputation that seems to have been continued by Legge’s son Jasper at Legge Gallery which, although it is completely independent from Watters, obviously shares some of its genetic gifts.

Defining Watters Gallery in those early days also meant looking for a new audience:they decided to go after a different type of art public than that traditionally associated with commercial galleries.

“We have also been very much artists’ reps or artists’ agents – more so than any other gallery,” says Watters. Although they’ve never had contracts with their artists, Watters and Legge insisted from the beginning that they deserved a commission on any work by that artist whether sold through Watters gallery or privately from the artists’ studio. “That’s one area where we have had to take a really hard line,” says Watters. “And it’s worked.” Equally, they have maintained a policy of paying artists a percentage on works that they have resold in the secondary market.

By and large, Watters gallery has had a steady stable of artists. Watters says one of the most difficult things that they had to face was the fact that they could not go on introducing and showing new artists. However they have been keen to follow the changes and developments in the work of their artists and have made a point of being accessible to the shifts in the artist’s work. This has not always been a policy embraced by other art dealers, a shift in an artist’s style might be received negatively by the market which prefers predictable, known product to innovation. In this way Watters Gallery has always stood apart from the mainstream. Some of their longest relationships have been with Richard Larter, Robert Parr, James Gleeson, Robert Klippel, Euan Macleod, Vicki Varvaressos, John Peart, Tony Tuckson, Chris O’Doherty (a.k.a Reg Mombasa).

“We represent the artists we don’t represent the public,” says Watters “and a lot of the time you found yourself providing backup support for the artists.” Watters gives the example of Vicki Varvaressos, who has moved through phases from figurative to abstract and back to figurative work. The gallery’s job has been to understand and represent these shifts to the public.

“It’s that growth which is the most exciting part of the gallery,” says Watters. He and Legge are sanguine about the enormous changes in the art market in the last 15 years or so. “I don’t think there is any point in being disconcerted,” remarks Watters. “At times we have felt swamped and that’s when we have had to go back to basics. We have found that, slowly, every serious collector in Australia eventually finds their way to us. We have such a diversity of people we show, from people like, Klippel and Tuckson, to Chris O’Doherty. We’ve shown [O’Doherty/Mombasa] right since he was at art school.”

The internet has become an important tool for Watters Gallery particularly in the last 12 months since it has refined its website. Watters does not believe the website is a substitute gallery but says it has been tremendously helpful for sending images to collectors interstate and overseas. Watters sees the irony in the gallery having moved from being a pace-setter to being regarded as conservative, but believes that their unwavering support for painters and painting during the last decade and a half when fashion went in the opposite direction, has been vindicated as public tastes have swung back.

Fashions in postmodernism might have diverted public taste away from painting for a few years but it was the stunning rise in public interest in Aboriginal art that really added an impact on Watters in the 1990s. Not ones to jump on every passing train Watters has held the line that it was more important to be an artist rather than an artist identified with any particular cultural group. The Aboriginal artist Freddy Timms had several successful shows through Watters as an independent artist before choosing to align himself with his community and work and show through them. It is the gallery’s only involvement with Aboriginal art and, although it was very successful, Watters and Legge wanted to continue their mode of working only with individuals.

Other trends and events have triggered movements of artists into and out of the Watters stable. During the 1970s Watters gallery was involved for a time with artists who were working around issues to do with the environment and other subjects with political flavours, such as women’s issues – a particularly famous show was an exhibition of doilies – the early days of the Mardi-Gras and anti-censorship. One of their landmark shows at that time was a curated exhibition dealing with the effects of coalmines on the Hunter Valley.

As a result of these forays, some of the Watters stable felt that the gallery was spending more time on issues-related art rather than on the artists’ careers, among them Susan Archer and Tony Carling who left the gallery at that time. Another talent who didn’t stay was Alex Danko. His shows at Watters went well but, Watters says, Danko yearned for a gallery that was more involved in dialogue on art theory.

Throughout most of its history, however, Watters’ books have been full. Its schedule currently allows for about 36 artists shows every two years. They have the advantage of an unusually long perspective on the changes in Sydney’s art scene. One of the biggest changes, says Legge, is the enormous increase in money spent on art compared to 40 years ago, but especially in the last decade. Auctions, too, have become big factors in the Australian market and Legge reckons they are possibly the most successful in the world on a per head of population basis. The boom in money spent at auction, says Legge, has taken a lot of money out of the gallery system.

Watters and Legge in some ways are the fine old gentlemen of modern art. They remain passionate about painting, they believe in nurturing and nursing their artists and standing by them, they query the validity and sagacity of art for investment. Watters condemns as “mad” the level of investment speculation that has been rife in the Australian market in recent years. As a matter of policy, the gallery also steadfastly refuses to encourage investment. When asked if an art work is a good investment, says Frank Watters with a wicked twinkle in his eye, the answer is always a firm “No!”

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