Bobbi Walker, owner and curator of Walker Fine Art, blends aesthetics with business in her downtown Denver space that seeks to recast the “commercial gallery” stigma.
Bobbi Walker rushes through her Denver gallery in running sneakers, a long flowy skirt, and a leather jacket. It’s a sunny spring afternoon outside, but inside Walker Fine Art, the basement has filled with three inches of water, forcing her to move a roomful of art that typically sits on pallets.
“I always say there are no emergencies in art,” the owner and curator of Walker Fine Art says. “But today, there is one.”
Like any small business owner, Walker has overcome challenges in assembling an enterprise. Sometimes it’s navigating minor flooding due to power washing in the building’s garage, but more often, it’s finding the right balance between commerce and creativity. The gallery, located in the Golden Triangle neighborhood near downtown, meshes the art of curation with the business of art.
When Walker first started the 3,800-square-foot Denver gallery twenty years ago, she was just trying to keep the lights on, sometimes renting the space as a venue for weddings and birthday parties. She quickly realized that it’s nearly impossible to do a solo show, as many other commercial galleries do, in a space so big.
“I came up with this idea to be thematic so that there’s an underlying story that each of these artists, in a different medium, is telling,” she says. “Then we post their statements next to their work.”
Walker, who represents each of the artists in the exhibitions, says she’s drawn to work that is “organic, ethereal, and uplifting.”
“If it’s aesthetically interesting, technically well executed, and spiritually or emotionally compelling, that is what makes it a successful piece of art,” she says of the criteria she looks for in a piece when curating an exhibition.
Most shows at Walker Fine Art feature six artists, who exhibit five pieces in a body of work.
“In the beginning, I was simply grouping artists aesthetically. Then over time, I dialed in a narrative approach where every exhibition has an underlying theme,” Walker explains. “The next layer was creating diversity within each exhibition by communicating that narrative through multiple media.”
In Coalescing Connections—the gallery’s current exhibition on view through July 8, 2023—a group of artists explores a relationship with the natural world. The selected artists work in watercolor, ceramic, silkscreen, and wood, showcasing a constantly evolving world.
Walker’s exhibition template gives the commercial gallery a vibe more akin to a modern art museum. While the gallery isn’t funded by donations or ticket sales—revenue streams that typically allow museums to take on challenging and politically driven topics—that hasn’t stopped Walker from digging a little deeper and asking questions through the shows she curates.
“With the larger space, I have the luxury of balancing easy-to-place work or work known by artists with new work that may push my community’s boundaries and expectations,” she says.
In this year’s first show Transient Presence, the exhibition’s focus was life being a continuous state of transition. A series by artist Katie Kindle featured hand-cut collages taken from magazines and advertisements. In their original form, those images were born for capitalistic purposes and made to be discarded, but the artist recycled, repurposed, remixed, and re-photographed the images to “create new narratives of a fragile yet resilient body seeking reconnection with the land,” Kindle says in an artist statement.
Two decades as a curator have taught Walker to make that kind of work not only visible in the art world, but celebrated. For a long time, “commercial” was a dirty word in the art world.
“How are artists ever going to make a living if being commercial is bad? Our artists have to be able to be rewarded for what they do… they need to be rewarded for what they bring to society and what they bring to culture,” she says.
For her, that’s the difference a gallery like Walker Fine Art makes for artists.
“My role as a gallerist is to provide the conduit for artists to present their ideas to the community,” Walker says. “By providing a glimpse into the creative mind, we hope to unlock a curiosity in the viewer that will inspire them to incorporate creativity into their daily lives.”
Walker’s edge in the Denver market is that she can offer a diverse range of media to clients who want a complex collection—one that reflects them holistically.
“Doesn’t it make a compelling collection [if you] can represent who you are in your journey of your life? When you find a theme that resonates with you and resonates with your story? I can help you tell it in a lot of different media. That’s what’s exciting about the way we curate here.”
In that way, her curation style and the art she offers in her gallery imitate life.
“Life continues to become more complex and more chaotic as people are bombarded by negative and divisive stimuli,” she says. “Our goal is to present an exhibition that will inspire our viewers to pause and appreciate the lifting power of beauty. If we can inspire creativity in others, then more channels of communication become available for people to be able to come together in a more positive vein of thought and action.”