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After 30 years, Austin gallery owner Wally Workman says it's time to celebrate

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Wally Workman is optimistic.

That might seem atypical for the owner of an art gallery in a mid-sized American city during an economic downturn. But Workman really, truthfully believes that Austin's cultural landscape is verdant.

And that's worth commemorating. On Saturday, Workman will celebrate 30 years in the gallery business with an exhibit of work by several dozen of the artists she represents.

In the meantime, she playfully brings a prop — a gilded frame — to have her picture taken at Portabla, the café next door to her gallery where she's taking a break for a chat.

Certainly, the Austin arts landscape is lusher now than it was when Workman set up her eponymous gallery in the 100-year-old West Sixth Street bungalow she still occupies today.

"There was no way I could exist just selling original work by Austin artists then," Workman says. Hence, she had to trade in fine art and limited edition posters at affordable prices. "There just weren't that many people collecting art," she says. "It took a while to be able to sell the work of Austin artists. Now people feel strongly about collecting (the art made) in their community."

And besides, what else was she going to do with a newly minted art history degree from the University of Texas other than open a gallery? "I was pretty unemployable," she jokes.

As Austin grew, so did Workman's gallery. When she hung out her shingle in 1980, the surrounding Old West Austin neighborhood was laid-back and casual. Now, the Wally Workman Gallery anchors a lively retail and restaurant area and claims several other galleries as neighbors.

On her roster are some of Austin's best-liked artists such as painters Will Klemm, Helmut Barnett, Gordon Fowler, Margie Crisp and Jan Heaton. Though the majority of collectors who buy from Workman's gallery are local, she's seen an increasing amount of sales coming from all over the country via her website.

Still, it's the locals that count. Last month at an opening for painter Ian Shults, Workman reports that she went through 600 wine glasses. No selling posters any more.

"We're fortunate to have great talent here in Austin," she says.

Workman says she's seen that talent not just grow, but deepen. Many of her artists can boast long-standing careers — and dedicated collectors. "I love to write checks to artists," Workman says. "That's my favorite part of the job."

With the Blanton Museum of Art anchoring the museum scene and Arthouse ready to unveil its newly remodeled Congress Avenue home — as well as a profusion of other arts events and happenings — Workman points out that despite the recent economic setback, the local art scene is far more diverse and sophisticated than when she started.

"Just look at everything that's happening in East Austin now, with artists opening galleries and studios," she says. "That's where the vitality comes from.

"Austin just gets increasingly more interesting as it grows," she says. "There's a casualness here, and I love the acceptance and the curiosity. We have a rare combination of qualities, and we almost forget that sometimes."

And that, Workman contends, means it's time for a celebration.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘Group Show: 30th Anniversary'

Opening reception: 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Exhibit continues through Sept. 4

Where: Wally Workman Gallery, 1210 W. Sixth St.

Cost: Free

Information:www.wallyworkmangallery.com .