Changing with the times

Published 4:25 pm Monday, May 2, 2011

Kent Free of Kent’s Gallery in Helena. (Contributed)

By LAURA BROOKHART / Community Columnist

Kent’s Gallery is Old Town’s longest-lived business, now in its 14th year. Kent’s Gallery was the first tenant to occupy the newly planned Old Town tourist/retail destination of the mid ’90s.

“I remember sitting in a field where The Depot is today and counting the passing cars, trying to determine what traffic I might expect,” recalls Free.

Kent Free, formerly of Jacksonville, Fla., has a background in accounting and commercial property, but when honeymooning in Lake Tahoe in 1990, he and Suzanne were awed by the array of the city’s art galleries and in particular, fell in love with the work of artist Eyvind Earle. Earle, an illustrator for Disney in the 1950s, was the background painter and stylist for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, but then expanded his own whimsical and powerful style in the ’60s working in limited edition serigraphs.

Back in Jacksonville, Free, in search of purchasing a Earle original, became acquainted with gallery owner John Graves who became his mentor, educating him in art history and eventually offering Free the opportunity and inventory to become a satellite operation for fine art offerings.

“We threw caution to the wind, took our savings and asked our families for their support to open our first location in 1993,” Free said.

Like many galleries, they added frame shop services and Free, who always had a penchant for putting things together, further refined his eye and established a fine local reputation for custom framing.

In 2000, Free rode the newly popular wave of decorative oil paintings, working with interior designers.

“Our business has grown steadily, even regaining footing after 9/11,” Free said.

In 2006, Free traveled with friend John Calhoun to Hong Kong and China with the intention of becoming an importer and distributor select original oil paintings being produced there.

The 2009 recession forced Free to once again look for additional products. Today, the new diversity at Kent’s Gallery is reflected in the hand-selected array of jewelry and handbags that have replaced racks of canvases.

Free wants to get the word out to purse-lovers about the fabulous styles and colors available that can add punch to your look in an affordable way. Jewelry offerings include many choices under $15 and trendy designs in silver; also turquoise and amber beads.

“I’ve seen a lot (of businesses) come and a lot go in my time here,” said Free. “I look at this as a win-win for everyone. My customers get a great price and another small business remains sustainable.”

Laura Brookhart can be reached by email at