Permitting Alcohol in Ohio Art Galleries

by Rich Weiss

“The fact is utterly unknown to the hundreds of revelers inside. Grace and Smith could have saved their lives that night—the great unknown is the number of lives saved by the Fire Prevention Bureau’s spot-checks and nit-picking.  Good deeds don’t get press.  Disasters do.”

This chilling statement was published April 27, 2003, on The Plain Dealer’s front page, under the headline “How safe are city’s nightclubs?  Fire crews patrol to avert repeat of recent tragedies.”  The article by Clint O’Connor followed then Lt. James Smith and Inspector Robert Grace of the Cleveland Fire Prevention Bureau as they performed fire inspections at one club after another.

That was over 11 years ago, when the news of two nightclub disasters in three days was still fresh, and The Plain Dealer’s circulation was over 365,000 strong.

The 2003 article explained why anyone inviting the public into a building must adhere to building codes: “On Feb. 17, 21 people were trampled to death at the E2 nightclub in Chicago.  When a fight broke out on the dance floor, bouncers shot pepper spray. People ran. The flood of bodies was mangled on the stairs. People were trying to get out the main entrance.  There was no fire.  On Feb. 20, 99 people died and 190 were injured after a fire at the Station Concert Club in West Warwick, R.I. Pyrotechnics used by the band Great White ignited soundproofing foam that set the club ablaze.  It burned down in three minutes.  Most of the dead bodies were found near the front door.  The people were burned, trampled or killed by the smoke.”

These incidents were textbook examples of the importance of compliance with state and city public safety laws.  How do safety codes, regulations, and permits come about in the first place?  Because something tragic happened that could have been avoided.

State of Ohio Department of Public Safety agents raided the Loren Naji Studio Gallery at 2138 W. 25th Street on Friday, May 2nd, and removed close to $700 in alcohol products, mostly beer.  Although Loren Naji’s gallery is located on the south side of W. 25th Street, operating just outside the boundaries of Tremont, its live performances, alcohol service, and large crowds pushed the boundaries defining an art gallery so close to that of a nightclub that the galleries within Tremont—which sparked the development of our neighborhood—have been impacted.

The May 2nd raid of Naji’s gallery may result in an update of Ohio law to allow alcohol permits for art galleries across the state.  But, of course, art galleries will have to be compliant with state and city public safety laws to acquire a permit.

According to Lynn Murray, the new President of Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC), “When you look at Ohio’s state law on liquor, the law is old.  It’s the same law that I prosecuted when I was in the prosecutor’s office, and it really doesn’t fit what is going on.  The galleries have been doing what they’ve been doing forever and we’ve never had a problem, so we really need to codify what is the norm into law.”

Murray, Ward 3 Councilperson Joe Cimperman, Tremont community activist Henry Senyak, and others believe it is of utmost importance to create a definition of what constitutes an art gallery.  According to Murray, “The idea is that the law defines what is a gallery owner.  You can’t open a barber shop and put a piece of art on the wall and then give liquor away.  You have to be a true gallery.  You have to be in the business of displaying and selling art.”

During a call with The Tremonster, Senyak said, “Naji’s a good artist and an asset to the Ohio City community, but you just can’t ignore a city official when they tell you to do something.”  If it were not 2014, but closer to the nightclub disasters of late February, 2003, Senyak might have been held up as a hero by The Plain Dealer.  When Senyak admitted he was one of many calls complaining about Naji’s gallery, his concern for public safety earned him scorn, regular scapegoating, and an ongoing local media campaign painting Senyak as a busy-body who just wants officials to stop everybody’s fun. This includes the same paper that explained to us, a mere 11 years ago, the importance of safety inspections.  But, as The Plain Dealer reported in that article in 2003, “Good deeds don’t get press.  Disasters do.”  Senyak declined to comment on the attacks on his character. He said, “We need the state to change the law.”

If the state changes the law, it would define what a gallery is across all of Ohio.  This would define art galleries whether in Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, “…or Waterloo, or Berea, or Hudson, or any other community where this is common,” Murray added.  “Sometimes we act like we’re in a vacuum, but if you go out to Berea, they have a vibrant arts community out there, they have galleries out there, there are galleries in all kinds of other small communities and they all do this.  This is a common thing.”

Michael Gill, Editor/Publisher at Collective Arts Network/CAN Journal, a quarterly magazine about art in Northeast Ohio, thinks an update of state law is a good idea.  In an email reply to The Tremonster, he said, “I agree that the law has to be brought in line with the common practice of art galleries’ opening night hospitality. It’s just common sense.”

Gill added, “Credit is due to Joe Cimperman for taking up the cause, and Bill Patmon, who was willing to work at the State Level to make the change.”

Gill pointed out that the proposed change to Ohio state liquor law would not need to reinvent the wheel, writing, “The legislation is not complete, but is being modeled after some existing art gallery permit laws in other states. One in Colorado, for example, allows galleries to serve complementary beer and wine–no selling– up to 15 days a year for one permit. The total fee for the annual permit in Colorado is about $175. There are some other limits, all of which seem to fit within the usual activity and behavior of galleries.”

But it’s of particular importance to Gill that galleries be allowed to operate in ways that have built up neighborhoods like Tremont.  “Art galleries bring people to neighborhoods, and opening nights are their busiest times,” said Gill.  “If ever the law was out of step with a common, normal, and above all beneficial activity, this is it.”

Jean Brandt, attorney, owner of Brandt Gallery, and organizer of Tremont’s ArtWalk, thinks the idea of proposing state legislation is a good idea.  “I think it’s really great that people are talking about this issue and looking together to find a solution,” Said Brandt.  “I just think it’s wonderful that people are talking and working together on this, and I look forward to whatever I can do to assist.”

“We’re all involved in this to do it right,” said Senyak.  “We need to make sure we take care of this for the legally permitted galleries.”

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