Frank Watters, who has died at the age of 86, was not only a pillar of the Sydney gallery scene for more than 50 years, he was a truly humane personality in a business that breeds sharks. Although he adored gossip and had a wicked wit, Frank held fast to his own standards. He was the most loyal and ethical of dealers, always seeing his artists as human beings not as money-making propositions. Those that never managed to be successful were treated just as warmly as the best-sellers.
Once Frank and his partners, Alex and Geoffrey Legge, had committed themselves to an artist their bond was immutable. Artists might leave Watters Gallery but they were never sacked for a poor sales record. It was more common for them to defect in search of higher prices, as Watters felt equally obliged to look after their clients, ensuring that works remained affordable to passionate but impecunious collectors. Every dealer will claim to be motivated by love of art, not money, but with Frank – a natural socialist – it was an article of faith.
As commercial galleries came and went in accordance with changing tastes, economic booms and busts, Watters Gallery remained the still centre of a rapidly turning artworld. Launched in 1964 the gallery barely made a profit for the first ten years. That hungry decade established Watters’s reputation as a showcase for the avant-garde, ever willing to support artists of integrity.
Business would pick up as the avant-gardists mellowed, and the gallery built a devoted following. When the doors finally closed in November 2018, the enterprise had enjoyed a life span of 54 years.
None of this would have seemed likely to the young Frank Watters, born and bred in Muswellbrook, in the Hunter Valley. People were so poor, he recalled, that one person would be nominated to go to the pictures, then tell the story of the film to everyone else. Frank’s mother was a good story-teller and often got the gig. One night she concluded a rousing account of How Green Was My Valley, by swearing that no son of hers would ever go down the mines!
This was a huge relief to Frank, but when a job came up at the colliery, she told him there was “very good money in the pits”. Inevitably Frank became a coal miner, ingesting dust that would be irritating his lungs years later. When he escaped his hometown in his early twenties, it was the twin lures of the big city and art that brought him to Sydney. The other great incentive was his sexuality, as the NSW countryside was no stronghold of gay liberation.
His artist brother, Max, who died in February this year, at the age of 83, would remain in Muswellbrook his entire life. In Sydney Frank set out to be a painter, and would have a show with Clune galleries. His days were spent working as a gallery assistant for Barry Stern, the dealer who got the Paddington art scene rolling.
It was here that he met Geoffrey Legge, an economist with an escalating interest in art, and laid plans for a new venture. Geoffrey and his wife, Alex, would provide the start-up capital for Watters Gallery, and act as co-owners. Opening in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, they earned Barry Stern’s congratulations for not selling a single work on that first day.
In 1969 the gallery would move to a former pub in Riley Street, East Sydney, skilfully renovated by architect, Don Gazzard. The bare concrete floors and white walls would host numerous shows by artists such Tony Tuckson, Robert Klippel, Richard Larter, James Gleeson, Ken Whisson, Vivienne Binns, Euan Macleod, Vicki Varvaressos, John Peart , Roy Jackson and Reg Mombassa, to name only a few of the best-known exhibitors.
I met Frank in the early 1980s, when the art battles of the late modern era had died down, and the fog of postmodernism was settling over the contemporary milieu. He was warm and friendly, as he was to everyone who came through the door with a sincere wish to learn about the art on the walls. Over the years there were dinners in his famous apartment above the gallery, where the walls were encrusted with art. I even visited him in his rural retreat in Cassilis, which would become his permanent home when he retired from dealing.
Over the years Frank had been instrumental in lobbying for a museum survey of Australian contemporary art, which would be realised with the Perspecta exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW, from 1981-99. He was a founding member and prime-mover of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, but always resisted calls for further red tape, such as written contracts between artists and dealers. Experience had convinced him that disputes were best settled person-to-person wthout legal complications.
As he grew older he was happy to declare he didn’t give a damn – or words to that effect – for the machinations of the art world, or the novelties that sent the curators into ecstasies. He was impatient with bureaucrats, careerists and trendies. His main criteria for showing an artist was that he or she should be “totally committed” to their work.
In an ideal world, the 50th anniversary exhibition of Watters Gallery, hosted by the S.H.Ervin Gallery in 2014, should have been held at the Art Gallery of NSW. Frank was not about to complain or indulge in recriminations. When winding up the gallery he donated his archive to the AGNSW, and invited curators to choose anything they liked from his extensive private collection. The final tally came to 32 major pieces, at an estimated value of more than a million dollars. A further gift of 67 works went to the UTS gallery, which will be exhibiting The Watters Gift until 17 July.
As for the archive, it underlines the differences between Watters Gallery and the rest. Steven Miller, archival librarian at the AGNSW writes: “Some gallery archives are very business-like and procedural, but theirs is rich with personal connections, artists writing to them while on holidays, writing to them about exhibitions they had just seen, seeking advice on everything from new directions in their art-making to their love lives! It is a record not just of visual art, but of the cultural life of Sydney from the 1960s onwards.”
A typical opening night at Watters would end with Frank flicking the lights off and retiring upstairs at precisely 8 pm. This was what happened at the last ever Watters opening, featuring work by Tony Tuckson. There were no speeches, no tears or self-indulgence. When he turned off the lights, Frank put a full-stop to 54 years of constant activity. His death, at home in Cassilis, surrounded by friends, was equally low-key. He had become frail, and passed away peacefully in the early morning.
Pride, compassion and stoicism were keynotes of Frank’s character. He had much to boast about but detested self-aggrandisement and trumpet-blowing. Although he preferred not to suffer fools Frank had infinite time for the frailties and eccentricities of those he loved, showing a big heart that was never properly concealed by the crankiness of old age. Now that’s he’s no longer around, his almost militant sense of modesty need not prevent us from singing his praises.
Frank William Watters (28 March, 1934 – 22 May, 2020), is survived by his many friends, chiefly his long-time partners, Alex and Geoffrey Legge.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, no date as yet