Put the wine down 

Gallery owners surprised by ancient state law

Gallery owners got an unpleasant wake-up call from the Idaho State Police last week. That beer and wine they hand out at First Thursday events? It's illegal.

"They came in and basically told me that if I was to give away free beer and wine, that I would go to prison," said Sam Stimpert, the owner of the Visual Arts Collective.

Apparently, giving away beer and wine without a liquor license, even in tiny plastic cups, is a no-no under Idaho law, according to Idaho State Police Sgt. Greg Harris.

"What they're doing is illegal," Harris said. The law against handing out sudsy art-enhancers dates back to 1935, he said.

Of course, that was news to the local art gallery owners, some of whom had been handing out beer or wine during art-night events for the last 10 years or more.

So, last Thursday, Harris and a couple of Boise Police Department officers made the stroll along with art-lovers, and visited gallery owners along the way.

"We wrote no tickets," Harris said. "It was strictly a public-relations deal. They didn't like it, but it was pretty positive."

The new enforcement of an old law certainly runs afoul of what has been a decades-long tradition, said Stephanie Wilde, the artistic director for Stewart Gallery in downtown Boise.

"I've never heard of one gallery not serving wine or something at their openings," said Wilde, who says she regularly supplies "great" wine at her gallery's events. "It's a gracious way to interact with the people in your community for the evening. I'd sure hate to think we have to go dry."

The fix is simple, but not free. When Boise Police Department Lieutenant Pete Ritter heard about the problem, he contacted the Downtown Boise Association, so he could get word out to the gallery owners that they need to get a temporary permit to hand out beer and wine. Then they'll need to hire a licensed caterer to do the wet work.

"It's not a crisis by any stretch of the imagination," Ritter said. But, he admits, "It did sort of catch us by surprise."

Stimpert started the ball rolling a couple of weeks ago, by inquiring about a beer and wine license from the Idaho State Police. But to get that, he'd have to become a 21 and over establishment, and act more like a bar than a gallery.

"We might have to take that route to survive," Stimpert said. "The Boise arts market is pretty small. The events have become our bread and butter."

The snafu has been an education for everyone, apparently.

"I don't think I'd heard of First Thursday until two weeks ago," Harris said. "I don't get out much."

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