You Can Always Go ... Downstairs 

Basement Gallery owner Perry Allen on 10 years in business

In January 1997, Perry Allen opened the Basement Gallery at 10th and Main streets in the basement of the Idanha Building. Despite its subterranean space, the gallery will likely become—or may already be—prime real estate as downtown Boise continues to grow and expand. But by nature of its owner, the gallery will likely stay right where it is for many years to come.

The current exhibit up at Basement Gallery is one of six two-month shows Allen, 45, curates in his gallery each year. The exhibition contains the mixed media and illustrative work of Bill Carman (which takes up almost the entirety of the gallery's largest room up front), illustrative and abstract paintings by Mike Flinn, drawings by Kristen Furlong, glass bowls and balls by Matthew Jordan and the clay sculptures of Sue Rooke (plus a couple of beautiful wooden tables by Derek Hurd, on which some of Carman's work is displayed). It's an eclectic collection of bright, fantastical images that reflect not only on the pieces' creators but, as a whole, on the show's curator.

Allen represents 40-50 local artists and does all necessary framing of the art in-house, and though that wouldn't seem to leave him much time, he's an avid recreationist. Allen is a bicyclist, he's restoring a fire-engine red '68 Camaro and after playing for 26 years, he recently retired from Ultimate Frisbee, a game he says most people get out of long before he did. Allen's boundless energy is carried over into his work: The gallery's small space barely contains his booming voice and passion for the art and the artists he represents, such as Carman.

For the last eight years, Allen has exhibited Carman's work in the gallery's July/August show (that spot was instead given to Erin Ruiz, whose show almost completely sold out). Allen says people were accustomed to Carman having the July/August time slot and starting calling as early as June wondering if he had any of Carman's pieces in. But this year, Allen wanted to do something different. He says he didn't bill it as such, but he wanted this year's September/October show to tend toward a Halloween theme—not in iconic black and orange pieces, but by hanging works that are a little strange and unconventional.

"I've been trying to integrate this Halloween thing for years," Allen says. "It's when I can really put the more eclectic and off-the-wall pieces up."

The anticipation of waiting until September must have been more than collectors of Carman's work could bear. Allen says about 30 percent of the pieces sold even before they were hung, and by the end of opening night, about 80 percent of them had the customary red dots to indicate they were no longer available.

"[Carman] is the only artist who gets two shows a year. He's so prolific. He'll have another full-blown show in January/February, and he'll fill that [front] space. He continually blows me away," Allen says.

It's Allen's obvious admiration for and consideration of the artists he represents that may be the most important ingredient in the formula for owning and running a thriving gallery. "Having artists I'm drawn to and [with whom] I have a good rapport ... to me, that's 100 percent of this business," Allen says. "It's how well you connect and get along with the artist and vice versa. I'm not in this to make a hassle for myself or anyone else. That's the last thing I want.

"I want the waters calm and everyone happy. I stress to any and all artists that when you walk through that door, this is an environment of peace and quiet: a nice tranquil environment," Allen says. "That's what I strive for. I want this to be a comfort zone. I want [the artists] to be comfortable. In other words, I treat this as my home, and I open my doors to these artists."

Allen has made the gallery comfortable and homey for patrons, too. Regardless of a person's knowledge of or experience with art, the Basement Gallery is not the sort of place where a visitor feels compelled to speak in hushed tones usually reserved for libraries and museums.

"I don't want anyone walking in the door to feel intimidated. When I walk into a big museum, sometimes I feel like a duck out of water. I'll feel someone poking me on the shoulder because I'm too close to the art. It's something I emphasize heavily here: I want the viewer up in the art."

But keeping the art up can be difficult at best. Allen says it's hard to maintain a thriving gallery. "You need a high-end location, and you need a high-end environment to give the sense that you know what you're doing," Allen says. "There's prestige and a reputation. It's a long slow [process] to build a reputation. You have to gain [community] support and an understanding of the client."

When asked about competition among the other galleries in town, Allen said he doesn't get caught up in any of that. He supports whatever other galleries are doing. "Any time a new gallery comes to town, I try to go visit with them," Allen says. "For other galleries, it might be a panic situation, but I think it raises the cultural environment. It's a big plus in my book."

"The main reason this gallery opened is that a lot of artists had no home. Eclectic, contemporary artists have a difficult time finding a home. I always appreciate when a smaller venue or a coffee shop opens its walls to artists," Allen says. "When I interview a first-timer or emerging artist, I usually refer them to these smaller venues first. I like to see them get about a year of exhibitions of some sort under their belts. And I don't care how high-end their work is. What's relevant to me is that they're out there doing it."

This year marks the Basement Gallery's 10th year of operation, a milestone anniversary in any respect, but Allen let the date slip by without much celebration. "If I'm still here at 20 years, maybe I'll do something then." He should start planning the party now.

—Amy Atkins

The September/October show runs through the end of October. The November/December show is the Basement Gallery's 11th Annual Group X-Mas X-hibition. The January/February 2008 show is an all illustration exhibit. The Basement Gallery, open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment, 928 W. Main St., 208-333-0309.

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