One of the most significant buildings in Australia’s artistic landscape, which established the careers of some of the nation’s foremost artists, has now come up for sale for the first time in more than 50 years.
The distinctive three-storey Victorian corner terrace on Sydney’s city fringe was formerly the home of the legendary Watters Gallery, which exhibited many top artists, including James Clifford, Tony Tuckson, Richard Larter, Robert Parr and Reg Mombassa.
But with the long-time owners, Frank Watters and Geoffrey and Alex Legge, now retiring and moving to the country, it’s to be auctioned on March 14 through agents Colliers International.
“It does feel like the end of an era, really, as they were very much pioneers in the art world,” said Colliers agent Miron Solomons. “They were owners and operators for such a long time, but now it’s time for them to sell the asset and redeploy the estate to their retirement fund.
“The building itself is absolutely beautiful inside and out, went through a redesign in the late 1960s before they opened in 1968, and now it would be ideal for a really cool creative as a corporate HQ and is ready to be transformed into something a little bit unique.”
With early buyers’ interest above the $5 million mark, the 578-square-metre freehold building at 109 Riley Street, on the corner of Stanley Lane in East Sydney, has parking, an upstairs apartment and a rooftop terrace and garden. It’s less than 1 kilometre to the Sydney CBD, is in the middle of an area of bustling cafes, restaurants, boutiques and no fewer than 17 other galleries and art spaces.
Randi Linnegar, who runs the King Street Gallery on William, nearby on Darlinghurst’s William Street, has picked up four of Watters’ former clients as well as one estate after the gallery closed in 2018. “But we are very sad to see it go as it was a very significant gallery and has a very important place in the Australian history of art,” Ms Linnegar said.
“They were true pioneers in showing the kind of artists that it was very difficult for the Australian public to have access to and, as well as being a commercial gallery, they had a very strong belief in arts and artists and worked hard to help them create careers. They’ll be really and truly missed in the Australian art world.”
However, that part of Sydney still has a thriving arts scene. There are regular Sydney East ArtWalks held in conjunction with the National Art School around the area, while the Chalk Horse Gallery is currently moving into new premises at 167 William Street, from just down the same road, and will launch there on February 28 with a solo show by Jason Phu.
At Chalk Horse, James Kerr said the closure of Watters would leave a big hole to be filled. “If that wasn’t the longest standing commercial gallery in Sydney, it was certainly one of them,” he said. “It has such a rich history of exhibiting important Australian art.”
Another new art space COMA is opening this week in nearby Stanley Street and, at the artspace-for-hire ARO Gallery, on William Street, owner Annette Russell opens her new exhibition A Moment in Time on February 26.
“It’s not good for any of us that Watters is for sale,” she said. “It’s been established for such a long time; it will be very sad to see it go. But there are a lot of galleries in the area remaining which is great. It’s a wonderful place to wander around, see all the galleries and then have dinner with friends afterwards in one of the great restaurants.”
The heritage building that housed Watters Gallery is already exciting a lot of interest from investors and potential owner-occupiers, Mr Solomons said.
Originally the site of a boot warehouse in 1858, it became the Victoria Hotel between 1863 and 1870, and from 1871 The Harp of Erin Hotel. In 1921 the building was used as a shop with the flat above, and then was altered in 1968 to accommodate the gallery until its closure last year.
“Now there’s the opportunity to capitalise on the current regentrification of a lively, bohemian area and its strategic location close to the CBD and major transport links,” Mr Solomons said. “It’s such a special building, and it will tick a lot of boxes for a lot of different people.”