Undercurrents, Receptions, and Raids
Now that the dust has settled on the Ohio Liquor Control raid that interrupted the opening of Undercurrents at Loren Naji Gallery in Ohio City, Naji and neighborhood officials are working to comply with the laws that came to bear. The fallout of the incident affects galleries throughout Ohio.
To review: the At 6:55 pm Friday, May 2, agents from the Ohio Department of Public Safety visited Naji’s gallery, kicked all the patrons outside, and confiscated several hundred dollars’ worth of beer and wine. This was one component of a plan by Tremont resident Henry Senyak to shut the gallery down. Senyak says there were complaints about noise and alcohol on the premises, but it’s unclear how many or where they came from. The gallery is not in Senyak’s neighborhood: He says his reputation for shutting down nightlife motivated someone who lives in Ohio City to ask if he’d ply his “expertise” in this situation.
“Yes, I called them,” Senyak told CAN. “I’m not going to deny that.”
The bust of an opening reception at an art gallery set Cleveland’s cultural world ablaze with anger. To most, it came across as completely unreasonable, an ambush, a senseless attack on someone who brings positive energy to the neighborhood.
“I have to deal with legitimate issues that don’t get this kind of attention,” said Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose ward includes Naji’s gallery.
Naji will eventually face two misdemeanor charges related to the beer and wine, but may face greater challenges in the long term, as Senyak has a track record of tenacious attention to any unattended detail that could help shut down night life: building codes, fire codes, noise ordinances, liquor permits. Indeed, in this case he had also contacted the Building Department and Cleveland Police, among others. In his career as nightclub vigilante, he has also helped to shutter bars including The Starkweather,Club Argos,Envy, and La Copa. This is the first time he has set his sights on an art gallery.
The incident highlights a multitude of issues. Foremost among them: enforcing compliance with the letter of the law is not the same as justice.
It’s true though, that galleries in Ohio broadly misunderstand liquor laws, and that impacts just about every one of them. The belief that galleries can give beer and wine away but not sell it may sound logical, and of course is the common custom. But it is simply not legal to offer alcohol in a public place without a license or permit. The rules are found in Section 4301 of the Ohio Revised Code. Giving it away the same as selling, in the eyes of the law. Non-profit organizations can get temporary “F2” permits to legally sell beer and wine at their opening receptions, but those permits are not available to commercial galleries. Commercial galleries can, however, provide alcohol by forming a relationship with a non-profit that gets an F2 permit.
Of course the law has not stopped the custom at galleries all over the region and state. As Prohibition proved almost a century ago, laws that fail to allow for harmless common practice will inevitably be violated by lots of innocent people.
The day after the raid, Greg Croft–the agent in charge of the Cleveland office of the Ohio Department of Public Safety–seemed to want to assure galleries that a broad crackdown is not in the works.
“We’re not going to seek out art galleries. We’ll act if we get complaints,” he said.
Croft discussed options for galleries that want to offer beer and wine as part of their opening night hospitality. In addition to F2 permits–which he acknowledges might be expensive and time consuming on a monthly basis–galleries could host openings as private events. If galleries directly invite guests, and if only invited guests are granted entry, it is perfectly legal to give them beer and wine. Croft says that in order to hold up under scrutiny, the guest list has to be something more controlled than social media, however. “You have to be able to make sure Joe Schmoe or Joe Undercover Policeman can’t just walk in,” he said.
In theory, galleries could send invitations to specific, controlled lists–like a post card list, or an e-mail list–and check it when people come to the door. Croft compared the idea to inviting guests to a wedding. Like all businesses, however, galleries aim to broaden their audiences. A restrictive list at the door would significantly hamper the audience-building effort.
It would also place a significant burden on the same small businesses Cleveland and other cities celebrate for the energy they bring to often downtrodden neighborhoods.
Councilman Cimperman has been meeting with Naji and officials from Ohio City Near West Development, as well as the City Law and Building and Housing departments to work out solutions. He says he’ll work with the neighboring business, Voss Industries, to formalize the casual parking arrangement they’ve had with Naji since he opened the gallery. Naji also needs to get an occupancy permit.
“That’s really not Loren’s fault ,” Cimperman said. “He inherited the lack of an occupancy permit when he bought the building. Probably half the buildings in Cleveland don’t have an occupancy permit.”
This specific case aside, art galleries in Ohio need and deserve the assurance that they can continue to practice the common custom of hospitality during opening receptions without breaking the law, and without the fear of a police raid. The law needs to be brought in line with the common practice. And the template for a solution may be found in the permit regulations themselves. Specific F permits are available in certain counties, and even for certain types of businesses. Hamilton County and Franklin County, for example, each have specific permits available for nonprofits operating parks or public property. An F5 permit is available specifically to the owner or operator of a riverboat.
Can artists, working with attorneys and community development groups create a new permit class that allows for galleries?
“My goal is to figure out what we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Cimperman said.
“I’d be more than happy to sit down in a forum and come up with a game plan and make sure this works for everybody,” Croft said. “I think it needs to be addressed. I’m hoping this is educational, so people don’t have to fall victim to raids.”
Loren Naji has been a supporter of CAN Journal and will exhibit works of editor Michael Gill and Liz Maugans at the gallery later this year. Joe Cimperman is also an advertiser in CAN Journal.
Lost in the excitement of legal trouble was the art that occasioned it all, Undercurrents, featuring works by Ron Copeland, Steve Ehret, and Bob Peck. This article is illustrated with their work.