Getting old isn’t something we all do gracefully but Frank Watters doesn’t mind terribly much. Now a septuagenarian, Watters has spent the last 42 years at the helm of the eponymous Watters Gallery in Sydney and he’s philosophical about getting old – especially when he considers how others feel about the autumnal stages of life. “I remember having a terrible disagreement years ago with Richard Larter”, he says. “Dick was always on about ‘grizzly old farts’ and he’d made up his mind that he was going to shoot himself when he turned 40 and Pat actually rang me saying look, he’s serious. It was dreadful. I told him that I was actually looking forward to being old and that it was going to be the best time of my life. He just looked at me.”
Thankfully, for both Watters and Larter, 40 came and went without disaster. But for a gallery that itself has only recently celebrated that very same milestone, it’s an achievement of an altogether different order and it’s unsurprising that for Watters, one of the greatest accomplishments of the last 42 years has literally been surviving them. But to acknowledge the mere survival of Watters Gallery is to shortchange the enormous contribution that both Watters and his partner Geoffrey Legge have made to the Australian art scene.
Watters’ earliest encounters with art are well-documented but those early experiences – buying his first painting, a Weaver Hawkins that still hangs in his kitchen, his years with Barry Stern, his early friendships with artists like Robert Dickerson and Margo Lewers and his one-time Paddington flatmates, who included a young Daniel Thomas – remain central to understanding both Watters' longevity and his unabated, genuine excitement for art and its makers.
Moving to Sydney from Muswellbrook, Watters spent a number of years working all manner of jobs, and while his paycheques went towards art, little of his time did. It was eventually an offer from the indomitable Barry Stern that allowed Watters to transform his love of art into a fulltime career though he admits, “I think Barry thought I was a lot richer than I was because I spent so much on pictures.” Despite Stern’s dislike of artists themselves – “he really had gone on the record as saying that the only good artist was a dead one” – Watters revelled in the opportunity to work with artists and Stern's gallery was then holding some pretty impressive shows, among them Ken Whisson’s first Sydney exhibition.
Watters believes that he’s always had a fairly uncompromising sense of fairness and integrity – something he’s as well known for as his business savvy and ultimately it was watching Stern destroy a rebellious artist that gave him the impetus to leave. Well, that and an offer from Geoffrey Legge to buy him a gallery. “I thought he was stark raving mad” says Watters, but despondent as he was, “I would have agreed to anything”.
For such a long partnership, the Watters-Legge team has been remarkably turmoil-free and Watters attributes the reason they get on so well to the fact that they’re so very different. When the gallery opened in 1964 they were certain of but three things: they didn’t want to steal artists from other galleries; they wanted to create a space where artists could experiment and they wanted artists who were absolutely, totally and utterly committed to making art. It was undoubtedly a risky venture and for a decade it wasn’t a profitable one.
Scheduling non-selling shows, allowing the gallery to be used for installations, poetry readings and performances – it doesn’t sound so extraordinary now but in the early seventies it was unheard of and those early years of experimentation – and trust – underpin everything that Watters stands for now. He regards his greatest accomplishment – survival aside – as the rich and enduring friendships he has formed with artists and collectors alike.
Those early years were an exhilarating time both in and outside the gallery as Watters also spent a great of his time fighting the increasing censorship of the arts by the government. Some of the exhibitions from this time, such as Richard Larter’s “non-exhibition” exhibition, are now legendary. Reflecting on the possibility of an equivalent contemporary moment Watters doesn’t think there has been the need for such art, “but I have an awful feeling that we're approaching a political climate where it’s going to be needed again.”
Surviving those uncertain early years, the economic recession of the early nineties and the recent surge in the popularity of the auction house, Watters’ sense of both achievement and contentment is difficult to begrudge. Still wary of the art bureaucracy and the institutional “dumbing down” of the art scene, Watters’ greatest concern today is not about the state of the arts, but the state of politics. In what he regards as an increasingly frightened time, does art still matter to people? “It does if they come here” he says.
While modest about being described as “one of Australia’s most influential gallery owners” Watters does remain ever-sure about how central art is to his life. “I remember having a terrible row once with critic Gary Catalano who screamed “It’s alright for you, you’re ontologically secure!” and that stopped me in my tracks because I didn’t know what ontological meant.” And when he did find out? “Well I was thrilled to bits. I’ve always had this absolute certainty about my own being, about where I would end up”. And is here there? “Yep”.
“Frank Watters: Sydney art gallery owner" interviewed by Bronwyn Watson, Sydney: The Big Shift, Artlink 14:3, September 1994.
Jo Higgins is a freelance art writer based in Sydney. An Honours graduate of the UNSW College of Fine Arts, she is the former online editor of State of the Arts.