Frank Watters

The Sydney art community is mourning the death of Frank Watters whose unerring eye for art, his faith in his stable of artists and his inclusive, down to earth approach helped make Watters Gallery in East Sydney a cultural institution and an intellectual hub for 54 years until it closed in 2018.

Watters died early on Friday morning (May 22) at his home in the NSW central west village of Cassilis, where he moved after the gallery closed. He was 86.
Born in Muswellbrook in 1934, Watters worked briefly in the mines. But in 1964, after moving to Sydney, he established Watters Gallery with co-directors Geoffrey and Alexandra Legge. The Legges’ son, the artist Jasper Legge, was also a director for a short time until his sudden death in 2010. Jasper Legge was Watters’ godson.
Watters Gallery showed many of the best and most adventurous artists of its day including Robert Klippel, James Gleeson, Ken Whisson, John Peart, Tony Tuckson and, later, Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa), Euan Macleod and Joe Frost among many, many others.
Visitors to Watters Gallery always encountered one of Watters’ dogs, which were often sitting on his lap. Most recently it was Teddy and before that, Nellie. Watters lived in a small flat above the gallery. The walls of the flat were covered floor to ceiling with art, and to be invited up there was like having an “audience” with its occupant, artist Euan Macleod said.
Macleod said Watters was a great gallery director because “it was always about the art”.¬†Geoffrey Legge made sure the gallery could support its artists financially, which left Watters free to encourage artists to pursue their instinctive paths. Collectors trusted his eye and his opinion,¬†including the author Patrick White who was a regular visitor and buyer.
“People had belief in Frank’s vision,” Macleod said.
“He wouldn’t say ‘this is a great painting’, if he didn’t believe it. If he didn’t believe in it, he wouldn’t show it.”
While Watters lived frugally in his upstairs flat, with its rooftop garden where a diamond python once took up residence, the one thing he spent money on was art for his personal collection.
“If Frank bought one of your paintings, you were so excited. It was such an incredible vindication,” Macleod said.
Watters hated artspeak, had a democratic attitude and made everyone to the gallery feel welcome. And he was immensely supportive of his artists.
“You knew you were secure. Whatever you did [with your art], you knew he was behind it. He had faith,” Macleod said.
The late Patrick White left many of his Watters Gallery artworks to the Art Gallery of NSW.
Watters himself made recent major gifts from his personal collection. In 2018 he gave more than 30 of his own works to the Art Gallery of NSW. The works “reflect the strength, humour and humanity as well as the anarchic flair of the art that shaped the history of Watters Gallery”, AGNSW curator Denise Mimmocchi wrote at the time.
And just this week, UTS announced its biggest ever gift. The Watters Gift is a donation of 67 Australian artworks by 27 artists from Watters’ personal collection.