Frank Watters: Sydney art gallery owner

Frank Watters at Tony Tuckson's first exhibition at Watters Gallery in 1970
Frank Watters at Tony Tuckson's first exhibition at Watters Gallery in 1970

Bronwyn Watson   You are originally from Muswellbrook, a mining community in the Hunter Valley. Is this where you bought your first painting?

Frank Watters   Yes, and I still have it. It was a Weaver Hawkins. I got involved in a local art group of people who were painting. There was one extraordinary woman, Terry Cheatle, who had more experience than most of the locals and she was a really big influence. They used to go out painting at weekends, and then we had exhibitions. But I never counted our pictures as real art, you know, we were hobbyists. We had an exhibition in one of the church halls, the Anglican Sunday School hall. She [Cheatle] arranged to have Weaver Hawkins, who was then president of the Contemporary Art Society, to come and talk to us about our pictures and give us some criticism. He was enormously kind about my pictures, which was wonderful.

BW   Do you still have any of your paintings?

FW    Yes, but he [Hawkins] also had an exhibition of his own paintings, and it was such a shock, they seemed so wonderful, so exciting. Then I realised that they had prices on them, I couldn’t believe it.

BW   Just getting back to your own work, what sort of style did you have?

FW   Figurative. Some landscape things, but predominantly figurative with a lean towards expressionism. I started exhibiting in Sydney. I was in a new young painters’ show at Clune Galleries when it was in Macleay Street very early on. There weren’t as many galleries then, the system was very different. The major exhibitions in town were the Contemporary Art Society and Young Contemporaries exhibition every year. Also, the Society of Artists was very strong and very good. I had what for me was a major work hanging in one of the Contemporary Art Society exhibitions. I remember coming down from the bush and standing there and hearing (I don’t think I’ve ever told her this) Nancy Borlase lecturing on my painting. It was such a thrill, but I decided I hated exhibiting.

BW   Was it the stress of having other people look at your work?

FW   I did some very strange pictures at the time, which I didn’t want anyone to see. They still hit a very odd chord with me, I don’t hang them. Vicki Varvaressos really ticked me off once, saying “Why can’t I see your paintings?” And I said, “I just can’t face them.”  And she said, “For God’s sake, what are you talking about. Have you got three heads or something?” And I absolutely freaked out, because the painting I was thinking of did actually have three heads, it was a composite figure. I think I was sorting out a lot of things in my own character, and I’d revealed a lot of things about growing up gay in a country town, things like that.

BW   Do you ever look at those paintings now?

FW   No, I don’t. I’m actually trying to become brave enough to hang them. I’ve only just started thinking about that recently, which is more than thirty years after the event.

BW  Was it a difficult decision to stop pursuing your own career as an artist?

FW  Well I’ve never stopped drawing. I go away in the bush and work away with watercolours. But the thing I found really creative and interesting was the whole concept of working as an agent for artists. And really the most fortunate thing ever was encountering someone as extraordinary as Geoffrey [Legge]. We never thought through a policy or anything. Some galleries, when they open, rush around trying to steal as many important artists as possible. But from the beginning, we consciously set out to try to develop new artists. We were lucky in the beginning because a very established artist, Margo Lewers, who was a friend of mine, gave us the first exhibition, as she had no attachments to any other gallery. She helped get us into the scene. We showed Richard Larter and John Peart very early. This year, we have been agents for them for thirty years. So you develop very close friendships. Most of our artists, we have been acting for them for more than twenty years.

BW   Talking about friendship … Some galleries seem to treat their artists badly, either keeping them at a distance, not talking to them, or worse, but you have a reputation for remaining friends with your artists. There must be times when this is very difficult.

FW  There are moment when I feel like killing them, but when I’ve been in real problems , like this health scare yesterday, almost the first person I spoke to was Dick Larter. There have been things that have really given me the courage to go on with the gallery. In the early days, when we were having a lot of trouble, when we were losing artists and really depressed, Richard Larter was a high school teacher, and he rushed down from Penrith to offer us his life savings to keep going. It was that extraordinary quality of a person. Another major crisis with the gallery happened in the 1970s. At the time we did a lot of exhibitions which were just performance or installations. There was just nothing for sale, and it was then that I realised that Alex [Legge] and Geoffrey were being very stretched.

As well, we started losing quite a lot of artists who decided we were too involved in social or environmental or political issues, and not concentrating enough on their careers. About this time, John Peart said he wanted to see me and I just turned to ice. I thought, if we lose John after all these years I just couldn’t endure it. I kept putting him off, and putting him off until he finally accosted me and said “I’ve been trying to speak to you for ages”. He said he was really worried about me, because he didn’t think I was getting enough rewards out of the gallery and he wanted to pay me extra commission. I just burst into tears, and of course didn’t accept. But it is those sorts of extraordinary things. My closest friends are artists.

BW  The past few years during the recession have been especially difficult for art galleries. How have you coped?

FW  I was feeling very depressed this year and was really pissed off that after 30 years of work we are on the knife-edge of surviving. Things have lifted since then but at one point it looked like we might even have to close. Certainly, if Geoffrey had put money in the bank and collected interest, he would have done infinitely better.

BW  But apart from the financial rewards, the gallery is certainly considered successful. What qualities do you think you have that have helped with that success?

FW  I was trying to explain it to Zoë and Jasper [Legge], who run the Legge Gallery in Redfern] what they should have, and I think the first thing is politeness. Basically, very simple things. Over and over you find that trying to cope with problems between artists and galleries, it comes down to the simplest thing of complete and utter misunderstanding, people not talking things through or being rude. I think caring about the work is important. And caring about the people who produce it. Also, if you don’t have a sort of passion about the work you won’t get anywhere. I also seem to have been born with a huge dose of ontological security. I’m so sure of my own judgement and my own self that I could quite happily go on exhibiting an artist even if every person in town was saying they were terrible or they were unfashionable. I feel very secure.

BW  How do you deal with young artists who come in and want to show their work? I know some dealers are less than polite

FW  Mostly people know now that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. That is one of the reasons we started the Legge Gallery. But I still look at some work and again it is that thing about trying to be as polite as possible and also as honest as possible. There is nothing worse than conning someone along or kidding them and saying, “Why don’t you go to Rex Irwin?”, for example. It is a game that used to played around town a lot. It is very cruel. For example, one day a person fronted up at the gallery and quite honestly the work was dreadful. I said, “Obviously you don’t know how to apply paint”. I was saying completely negative things and the young fellow burst into tears. And I said, “Oh God, I’m sorry”. And he said, “Oh no, it’s not that”. He said that, for the first time, he was actually being treated as a human being. He’d has a terrible experience with another dealer who had used his presence to hold him up to ridicule in front of other people, which I believe is unforgivable. Also, I think it is important to tell artists that what you are giving is your opinion and you are not the arbiter for the entire art world.

BW  So, besides politeness, obviously honesty has been one of the characteristics you have promoted as a dealer. I mean, some dealers do have a reputation for ripping off their artists and clients.

FW  It is one of the real problems, but I could name the majority of galleries operating in town at the moment and their business record is impeccable. All you need is just a few crooks, and of course they get all the press and its dreadful. The damage they do is incalculable. There are, of course, galleries that have been operating for a long, long time, like Bloomfield for instance, which has a fantastic record.

BW   And this is a problem that the Commercial Galleries Association has been addressing?

FW  With the Commercial Galleries Association, it finally got to the stage where it was becoming very, very unwieldy and we had the situation where trying to apply a code of ethics was extremely difficult. We had to rethink it all and we ended up establishing a review committee which literally assessed every single member.

BW  This was last year wasn’t it? And what were the results of the review?

FW  Yes, we changed some of the criteria for membership, which has been an absolutely essential thing. A gallery can’t be a member of the association, it has to be the directors. This is where things went wrong. If Geoffrey and I decided to retire, and someone bought Watters Gallery they would not automatically become members of the Commercial Galleries Association, which is what happened in the past. It is now also harder to become a member. For instance, if a new gallery wants to become a member the directors have to be nominated and voted in by one hundred percent of the membership in Sydney. Then it goes to a national meeting, and has to be voted in by seventy-five percent of the membership. Also, to safeguard that a bit, it is not a secret ballot. It has to be up-front, so if anyone objects to a new member they have to make a very good case.

BW   What about your own future? You said you have sometimes considered throwing it all in, so do you have any plans for retirement?

FW  The nice thing about this job is that you don’t have to retire. At the moment I’m finding the situation more exciting than ever. Things are changing quite a lot. There is much more awareness and we are getting a stream of people coming into Australia who are very excited about what is happening here on a world scale. I think trying to promote Australia, like carting suitcases full of stuff to overseas fairs, is absolute bullshit. I always thought it was a wank. Project officer people absolutely love it, because they can see themselves sitting on the terrace in Venice sipping Campari. It does absolutely no good. I’m utterly convinced that parochialism is important, that making the scene here work with the artists that are here and the collectors is the most important thing.

BW   So you think there are positive signs for the art scene?

FW  I think there have been damaging things. I think the whole structure of the reviewing thing has became horrifying. The media has become more philistine. When we were running a tiny little two-pot gallery there were eight reviewers. But you also has editors who were much more cultured and they are not any more. They are like this circus that has become the Art Gallery of New South Wales, bums on seats with no intellectual background. And so the reviewing thing, there have been people who I think write very well, who have been pushed into the background. And so the reviewing thing, there have been people who I think write very well, who have been pushed into the background, or pushed sideways. So I think, as far as that goes, the scene has become dreadful. The other thing I think about the scene is that there has become an absolute plethora of bureaucrats. These are people who are simply coming out of fine arts, hating art, and looking for whatever is fashionable. I think the big exhibitions we have seen are just so sterile and boring, like Perspecta, the Biennale of Sydney, many of the exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art. You just feel as if one particular artist has done all of them. But having said all that, while enormously damaging, I think the scene is big enough for it not to matter. I feel as if we can tootle along in our own little world and it just isn’t a dreadful worry any more.

Bronwyn Watson is a Sydney-based arts journalist.