The Business of Art 

Sales sluggish for local dealers

The grim consensus among downtown Boise gallery owners is that business is slow these days.

For some, the lag in business has been a longer, more extensive hit, forcing major changes in the way things are run. For others, it's meant buttoning down the financial hatches and waiting for the storm to blow over.

Perry Allen, owner of Basement Gallery, says he's definitely seen a slowdown, but that ebb and flow is just part of making a living in the arts.

"It's an economy-driven business," says Allen. "When the economy falters, we're one of the first to go and one of the last to recover." Allen has been in his subterranean gallery space at the corner of 10th and Main streets for 12 years and he's essentially a one-man show, running the gallery as well as the custom framing arm of his business, day in and day out.

"I don't even have to talk to anyone in the arts to know that we're taking a big hit," says Allen. The reality, he says, is that it's more important to put food on the table than buy a piece of art.

However, art tends to be a commodity for a crowd likely not affected by an economic slowdown—but not exclusively.

Jacqueline Crist, owner of J Crist Gallery on 17th and Main streets, says she started noticing a slowdown about a year ago. Although summer is typically a slow time for Crist, she says given the sluggish year it's been, she's going into the busiest part of her year with some reserve about her spending.

Crist, whose gallery has a reputation for being among the most contemporary in town, says the artists she represents who have a solid collector base are still producing and selling work without much noticeable slowdown. But she's seen a marked difference in two other areas.

"What has changed is the random person who comes in the door, who you haven't seen before, and they buy something," says Crist. "My clients who are the more corporate type, like the business offices, are scaling down quite a bit. They have canceled projects. They want to wait a few months or not spend as much as they'd planned."

Beyond Idaho, she says, the art world seems to be doing just fine. Crist says her contacts in larger cities tell her they're doing well, but at home, she says she's noticed other signs that Boise's current slowdown could be a precursor for something more serious. Rumblings that Hewlett-Packard may be considering a move out of the Treasure Valley concern Crist, as does what she's seen and heard specifically about Boise's galleries.

"I heard that Stewart closed their exhibition space or something," says Crist. "That makes me nervous because we have so few galleries here that by our presence, we all make each other stronger. That concerns me as much as anything, that galleries aren't doing well." Crist adds that she's heard other things she doesn't want to share with a reporter.

A few blocks from J Crist at Stewart Gallery on 22nd and Main streets, a change in the window display has led people to believe the gallery is closed. Starting July 1, owner Stephanie Wilde began leasing out her front exhibition space to a Persian carpet and textiles retailer. The gallery moved into its current location a year ago, after eight previous spaces in its 21 years in business. Wilde credits her two decades in business to her continual re-evaluation and reinvention over the years.

"Immediately we started getting calls that we were closed and it's a little sad that's out there in the community rather than have people go, 'Wow, they're reinventing themselves again,'" says Wilde.

Like Allen, Wilde chalks it all up to simply the nature of being in the business of art. Now, rather than curate exhibitions every six weeks, Wilde is approaching Stewart Gallery from a new angle. From the back of the gallery space, she's ramping up her phone and Internet business.

"When we could see the shift in the economy and in people's thinking," says Wilde, "then we realized we needed to change the conversation just a little bit to be very positive and to make connections outside of the city."

And, says Wilde, it's been a very positive shift in focus. Soon after making the changes, she found two new clients and had someone from Los Angeles walk in and buy. And perhaps that's what embodies her new focus most, moving Boise artists beyond Boise.

"We represent really wonderful artists that need to be in other cities. Those local people who bring so much to our city, we need to share them."

Randall Brown's approach isn't about moving beyond Boise, but rather, expanding beyond the gallery. Brown's Gallery, which has been family owned for more than 40 years, has been slowing down over the last few years, says Brown.

"I don't know that it's just galleries because some of our suppliers have gone out of business," says Brown. "Some of our artists have decided they can no longer make a living as an artist and are having to re-examine their chosen professions."

Like Crist, Brown says his clientele is, for the most part, a demographic that won't be hurt by an economic slump. Brown, who is also an art appraiser, says he's seen people assessing the value of the pieces they already own, trying to determine whether they should liquidate their collection to generate income. He recently had an out-of-work construction worker drop off a few pieces of his collection to sell.

Slower business has meant more time in the gallery for Brown. He no longer has a staff of employees. Instead, he has one woman who comes in four hours every other Saturday just to give him a few days off a month. Even that, he says, is more than he can afford.

"I'm fortunate to be diversified within the visual arts," says Brown. "I am an appraiser, and I work a lot with the state. I work with U.S. Bankruptcy courts." When framing shops and other businesses fail, Brown sells off the work to generate revenue. He recently contracted with a law firm dissolving its partnership to sell off its artwork.

"I'm staying in business by people going out of business," Brown says.

As for speculation about when things will take an upswing, no one is ready to make a prediction. Some think November's election will boost the economy, while others refuse to specify a timeline, instead swallowing the business cycle's bitter pill and hoping a remedy is soon to come.

"We're the last to recover," reiterates Allen. "When you see people starting to purchase art again, starting to do custom framing again, starting to put back into the cultural aspect again [like] going to plays—that's a good solid sign that your economy is on an upturn. Until you see that, you're still in limbo.

"If anyone in the arts right now is telling you they're not taking a hit, they're fibbing. They're putting on a nice smile and lying."

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