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Treasured memories of Austin culture move with Stephen L. Clark Gallery

Michael Barnes
Austin 360

Did you feel that? The center of gravity for Austin art just shifted every so slightly.

That's because longtime gallery owner and peerless cultural connector Stephen L. Clark recently moved his business — and his Austin storytelling — from 1101 W. Sixth St. one door south to 508 Baylor St. 

Not a big change in terms of distance, but a win for Austin culture, because Clark has found a way not only to survive, but to thrive, with his usual elegance and grace, in the current supercharged real estate environment.

Across town, another crucial Austin gallery and cultural center, Women & Their Work, has recently found a new permanent home at  1311 E. Cesar Chavez St.

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Over the years, Stephen L. Clark has turned his galleries into a cultural clubhouses for photographers, writers, artists, musicians and other Texans.

Clark represents some of the most beloved Texas photographers, writers and artists of all time. Names such as Keith Carter, Russell Lee, Kate Breakey and Bill Wittliff that will be celebrated in books and museum shows well into the future.

The founder of the Waterloo Ice House restaurant group opened his eponymous gallery in 1993. He had been an active part of the arts scene since 1975, when his college roommate and friend since 1959, Rick Williams, first introduced him to a Texas-linked community of photographers that has included Ave Bonar, J.B. Colson, Peter Brown and Jack Spencer as well as Carter, Wittliff and Breakey.

Clark's most recent move, with treasures in tow, was swift and unavoidable.

His gallery had shared a two-story 1867 corner building on West Sixth, once owned by the Morley family, with late screenwriter, author and photographer Wittliff, whose family still owns it. Some preliminary work on the structure revealed that it needed a thorough and complete renovation. 

In May, Clark quickly sped up his search for a new home, and ultimately landed at another Wittliff family building next door. He shares the tidy bungalow with Joe Pat Davis, former assistant to his screenwriter friend.

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"Moving this time was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in business," Clark says from behind a heavy desk of dark wood that dominates the new gallery's entry room. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie's writing desk sits in an adjoining room. "I looked at every page that I moved. I found several pictures of Russell Lee that I didn't know I had, and one of Bill in his house."

Several softly hued rooms in the new Stephen L. Clark Gallery, located in a bungalow on Baylor Street, are devoted to some of the best artists, photographers and writers in the state.

Clark will continue to sell Wittliff's prints, including the classic images he took while filming "Lonesome Dove," the miniseries that he adapted from Larry McMurtry's book, as well as some experimental pictures taken with a pinhole camera constructed from an aluminum beverage can. 

"I always regret the pictures that I didn't get," Clark says with a sigh. "I've got 30,000 of Uncle Walt's Band alone." He refers, of course, to the key Austin band of the 1970s and '80s that performed regularly at his Waterloo venue. "I've been lucky all these years to know all these guys."

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The bungalow, acquired by the Wittliffs during the 1980s, does not come with the soaring ceilings of the 1867 building, but it feels cozy and airy. It had served over the years as a beauty shop, commercial real estate agency and — more history — the art and production department during the filming of "Lonesome Dove."

It now lures the viewer deeper into the house with three sunny rooms of mixed art and one connective room decorated with artfully placed old objects collected by one artist.

Outside, what remains of a historic Treaty Oak greets the viewer from across Baylor Street. Other art galleries in the area include West Chelsea Contemporary, recently reinvented during the pandemic, as well as the always welcome — and welcoming — Wally Workman Gallery. 

Wittliff has been a part of Clark's gallery since before it opened. Back in the 1990s, when Clark was considering a break from his previous food-drink-and-music businesses, Wittliff told him: "When God closes a door, he opens a window."

To Clark, that one piece of wisdom allowed him to start a new chapter in his life.

Clark: "He's still watching over me."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.