Walker Fine Art offers a lesson in how galleries can survive the times

Walker Fine Art has been around for 20 years now, and its current exhibition, “Fractional Confluence,” is a good example of why the business has survived and prospered while other galleries have come and gone.

Gallery owner Bobbi Walker has an eye for quality art with commercial appeal, and the six artists on display each rise to the occasion on their own terms. There is nothing so radical in the mix, nothing overtly political or challenging on a topical level, nothing that is likely to rile people up in the way that art can. But all of the work is built from complicated, professionally rendered processes that produce objects that are pleasing to look at — and to live with.

It’s the kind of art that people like and buy, and peddling it with verve has helped Bobbi Walker maintain a crucial place in Denver’s cultural ecosystem. People know her, and she knows herself.

“It’s not my role to be a museum and be on the cutting edge of art in Denver,” Walker said in an interview last week. She leaves that mission to other galleries and nonprofits.

“It’s my role to make a living for my artists and help them learn how to make a living for themselves being full-time artists,” she said.

Bobbi Walker understands the job in a way that, I think, few other gallerists do here. Maybe that’s because she has an MBA in marketing instead of a degree in art like some peers in the profession, and she’s not looking to be the star of the show.

Walker Fine Art, a sprawling showroom in the Golden Triangle Arts District, has the elegant, quiet feel of a typical white cube gallery. It’s a place to relax with art from some of the region’s most prolific names, like Sabin Aell, Theresa Clowes, Mark Penner-Howell, Peter Illig, Bonny Lhotka and Meagen Svendsen — to name just a sampling.

But it’s a business, an economic driver, and a city’s cultural scene needs gallerists with ambition as much as it needs those talented painters, sculptors, ceramicists and printmakers.

“Fractional Confluence” has all of those elements. Precision drawings from Tonia Bonnell, who combines multitudes of repetitive, tiny marks made from graphite into abstract, cloud-like landscapes that move to stop-and-start rhythms. Touches of colored pencil in pink and orange give them a natural, sunlit essence that brings them down to earth and invites viewers to make sense of their shapes.

Those works are balanced by Christopher Owen Nelson’s dramatic, three-dimensional, rock-like structures that seem to be excavating themselves from some deep place beneath the planet’s outer edges. It’s a controlled chaos, though, with rough and jagged shapes juxtaposed strategically against smooth and polished surfaces. The pieces work as metaphors for the dualities of life, the push and pull of positive and negative energies.

Everything in the exhibition has a hand-made feel, a sense of small parts coming together into unexpected wholes. That includes Doug Haeussner’s collages, made from narrow bits of ripped and torn magazines and posters arranged into vertical compositions that bestow a permanence on materials that were originally designed to exist only temporarily.

There are similar build-ups in Christopher Warren’s, multilayered wall reliefs based on topographical land maps; in Angela Piehl’s flora-and-fauna-inspired pigment prints derived from her collages; and in Rob Mellor’s acrylic paintings that are collage-like in the way that they pull together various imagery from the worlds of nature, geometry and art history.

Each of the works in “Fractional Confluence” has its own personality but also fits neatly into the profile of wares that Walker Fine Art is known to sell, which is to say colorful, organic and durable.

And it appeals to the various markets that the Walker gallery has cultivated. Twenty years ago, Walker started as a specialist in abstract art, but its lineup has expanded over time to include figurative work, sculpture and, more recently, large installations.

Simultaneously, the gallery has grown its customer base. Walker has a list of loyal collectors, and caters to them, but, as Bobbi Walker says, successful gallerists can’t rely on retail sales.  “We don’t just sit around reading art magazines and waiting for somebody to walk in the door.”

She also offers services as an art consultant collaborating with interior designers to outfit homes, hotels and other businesses. At the same time, Walker and her small staff work to develop relationships with architects and developers to place larger pieces into new projects. Those efforts, plus some income from people who rent the expansive gallery space for weddings and parties, come together to make the operation profitable.

It puts Bobbi Walker into a small though influential position in Denver, and she has enhanced that with a long list of community service efforts over the years. She spent six years on the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, a board with great sway over the city’s cultural policy and art spending. She served three years as president of the Denver Art Dealers Association and was on the board of the Golden Triangle Museum District.

She also builds community around her staff — gallery director Libby Garon has been on board for six years — and her roster of active artists, which hovers around 40. There is a lot of career counseling for both emerging artists who are hoping to establish themselves, and mid-career artists looking to expand their practices. She encourages them to get to know one another and attend each other’s openings. Once a year, they all come together for an annual meeting where Walker says she shares “all aspects of the business” so everyone knows how the operation is doing and what gallerists and artists can expect from each other.

Walker understands the collaborative nature of the business, and also how her own success as a dealer contributes to both the overall status of the region’s art scene and the careers of the hard-working artists she brings to the public.

“You’re only as good as the artists you represent. And you have to believe in who they are and what they’re capable of,” she said.

IF YOU GO

“Fractional Confluence” continues through Jan. 14 at Walker Fine Art, 300 W. 11th Ave. It’s free. Info: 303-355-8955 or walkerfineart.com.

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