Third year UTS journalism student with an interest in culture, education and social justice. Tweet me @TallulahMT.
It will be the end of an era when the Watters Gallery in Darlinghurst pulls down the shutters for the last time at the end of this year.
Opened in 1964 by Geoffrey Legge, his wife, Alex, and friend Frank Watters, who are now all in their 80s, the gallery was one of the first in Sydney to normalise the business model of taking a commission from artists.
Mr Legge says as that idea started to gain acceptance, the gallery scene expanded, but it still took Watters a decade to break even and many more years to make a profit.
“One bit of good luck is that Alex was an accountant, but another is Frank’s amazing perceptions and wisdom [about which artists to take on] that pushed us along,” Mr Legge said.
The closure marks the end of an era for one of the longest surviving privately-owned galleries in Sydney, but also an end to the manner in which galleries traditionally operate.
“You know there are galleries that don’t have a gallery at all … virtual galleries, that sort of thing,” Mr Legge said.
“Frank, Alex and I think we are moving out at the right time because we don’t have the know how, or care to have the know how, to handle the new world that’s coming up,” he said.
Independent arts consultant and former executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts Tamara Winikoff said it was really very sad that Watters was closing.
“For decades, they have set the benchmark for ethical practice and fostered the careers of many important Australian artists.”
One of these artists is self-taught painter and drawer, Ken Searle, 67, who has been represented by Watters since he was just 25 years old.
“I walked into the gallery with a couple of small pictures and I assumed the fellow behind the desk with the beard was Frank Watters, so I asked if he wanted to show these [pictures] and he said yes,” Mr Searle said.
The fact that the gallery’s directors were open to all sorts of ideas and never tried to direct artists’ work, is one reason Mr Searle says he stayed with the gallery for so long.
“Even if you sort of went through a bad patch in your work … they’d keep you there and have the patience to see you through, which worked in their favour and I think is one of the reasons they lasted so long,” he said.
Despite being given a lot of notice about the closing of the gallery, Mr Searle still does not know where he’ll go next.
But Mr Legge, who described Mr Searle as a ‘dedicated’ and ‘brilliant’ artist, said, “maybe it’ll turn out we have been holding them back all these years.”
Ms Winikoff said traditional galleries like Watters, had been tested in the current climate.
“Their [Watters] model of supporting emerging and experimental artists through subsidising their work with the sales of big name artists has run itself out,” she said.
According to Ms Winikoff, the avenues of art sales have diversified to include artist-run initiatives, art fairs where artists represent themselves, art rental schemes and the online environment, “which is disrupting all kinds of traditional intermediary structures.”
Megan Brownlow, a media and entertainment industry specialist at PwC Australia, said this diversification did not necessarily mean the end for galleries, rather a broadening of opportunities for artists.
“We are seeing a more widespread take-up in creative expression in many ways and that’s fantastic because being creative is not only good for individuals, it’s good for a society,” she said.
But Economics Professor, David Throsby, from Macquarie University, who has conducted a survey funded by the Australia Council on the art workforce since 1983, said it was harder for emerging artists to make a living now.
“There are just more visual artists in the market trying to sell their work and so [there are fewer] opportunities for an individual artist … the commercial galleries are still there but they tend to be a little bit more picky in terms of who they take on,” Prof Throsby said.
Sydney-based emerging artist and art director, Amy Roser, 31, believes being tied to a gallery can be restricting.
“In the world that we’re in, especially where artists can have an online profile, they don’t need a gallery to have their work hanging there all the time.”
In fact, Profess Throsby said one of the biggest changes for artists he has seen through his research, has been the uptake of the online platforms to promote and sell artworks.
The results from the most recent survey published at the end of 2017, found that 51 per cent of visual artists promoted their work through their own website and 38 per cent through a third party website and via social media.
“It's actually really quite effective, I think a lot of artists have found that,” Prof Throsby said.
Ms Roser said in order for artists to be prolific users of these platforms, they needed other skills not taught to them at art school.
“When you’re an artist you are your own business, but you’re not taught the skills [at art school] to come out into the outside world and do that as a job,” she said.
Ms Brownlow said younger emerging artists had a huge advantage because they were more digitally savvy and were familiar with the tools to connect them to audiences, which is a huge advantage.
“When you go through a gallery, you’re essentially hiring a manager and a PR company and an existing distribution channel and you pay ... 40 per cent for that privilege,” she said.
“If you choose to do that yourself and you want the same level of awareness, you have to do all of the jobs that a gallery does.”
While Mr Legge said there were no plans for a closing celebration, the directors of Watters had thought about how to leave a lasting impact.
“Frank had the idea that the artists that show with us could perhaps contribute to an archive [at the Art Gallery of NSW].
“It would be a way that future people can judge how the art scene has changed and developed and see what we used to do,” he said.