Austin’s art scene has changed a lot in the past 28 years. Just ask gallery owner Wally Workman. When she purchased her Clarksville neighborhood showroom in 1980, then called Graphic Concern, the small shop displayed only show posters.
“I don’t think Austin could have supported original art then; the economy just wasn’t here,” says Workman, who studied art history and is very much considered a friend of Austin artists. “Austin has become a much more sophisticated town. It was always our goal to work closely with artists and show original work. We’ve slowly been able to work in to that.”
Today, the Wally Workman Gallery helps support dozens of contemporary artists – a good 70 percent of them local – in a beautifully renovated historical house on West Sixth Street.
Though Workman says the ultimate goal for a community gallery must be sales, her personal agenda comes more in building relationships with the artists whose work she represents. She maintains close friendships with each artist, encouraging them to drop by the gallery at their convenience. And she rarely takes on an artist for one show only, part of her aim being to work with artists long-term as they develop.
“We want to provide insight to the artists,” she says. “Hopefully the public will get to know the artists through us. It’s really exciting to watch them grow and mature and be doing exactly what they want to do. And it’s terrific when the public responds well. I love to pay artists!”
The Wally Workman Gallery displays a variety of work, from sculptures to realistic watercolor painting and surrealistic oils on canvas. And many of the gallery’s featured crafters are among the region’s top lesbian artists: Martha Gannon, Linda Sheets, Cheryl Finfrock, Ginger Fox and Dawn Chatoney.
The gallery has a huge inventory of artwork and rotates pieces regularly as work sells. (Workman keeps at least 200 paintings in storage in the building’s basement for this purpose.) And thanks, in some measure, to the gallery’s website, about 20 percent of the work sold is to out-of-towners. The website (www.WallyWorkmanGallery.com) has garnered the gallery tens of thousands of dollars in sales, and has become another tool for bringing more and new art collectors in to the fold.
“People can visit the website and become familiar with the artists here. We wouldn’t be able to show as much without the website,” says Rachel Haggerty, Workman’s gallery assistant.
And though Workman and Haggerty encourage potential clients to visit the website regularly to research artists’ works and learn about upcoming events, they hope to ultimately have many of those customers walk through the front doors.
“The gallery is not at all intimidating to walk into,” Haggerty notes. “There are a lot of people who might be scared because they don’t really know how to collect art. But Wally has created a friendly environment that’s great for exploring art, and she has a great way of making people feel more comfortable about it all.”
As Austin’s art scene has matured, there’s been plenty of opportunity for competition. But that’s simply not how Austin works, Workman says. Unlike Santa Fe, San Francisco or Chicago, where competition among galleries and museums can be brutal, in Austin, many of the arts organizations work together to ensure the whole industry thrives. Indeed, Workman says she’s always referring clients and artists to other galleries. It’s all in an effort to simply get the community thinking about art.
As her own gallery continues to grow, Workman says one of her objectives is to always be bringing on new artists.
“I hope we can continue to show great work, and I think we’ve positioned ourselves well in that respect. I hope we can grow and that the work we show only gets better and better,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to do what I like so much. I mean, I get to look at new art all the time. After 28 years, I’m still excited about coming to work every day.”