NEWS- Criminal sipping: ABC cracks down on gallery Fridays

The first sign of change at First Friday, Charlottesville's phenomenally popular art crawl, came June 2 when attendees were told that Second Street Gallery wasn't serving wine because Alcoholic Beverage Control was present. Director Leah Stoddard appeared, the bottles came out from under the tables, and wine proceeded to flow again.

Stoddard describes the visit by ABC Agent Kevin Davis as "educational," and says he okayed the resumption of wine service but told her the gallery needed a banquet license if they served alcohol, a change that threatens to upset the fine art of viewing fine art.

"I was misinformed on about six levels," admits Stoddard. "We assumed if we were a nonprofit and weren't selling but just serving wine, we didn't need [a license]."

Now, Second Street must fork out $55 for a banquet license every month to comply with ABC regs. As a nonprofit, it has that option. The same does not hold true for its for-profit neighbors.

At Les Yeux du Monde, gallery owner Lyn Bolen Warren says Davis told her it's not legal to serve wine unless everyone in attendance is an invited guest. Warren says she does send out invitations, but invitations are not required to drop by art galleries on First Friday– or at least they haven't been in the past.

"That's going to be very awkward," says Warren. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do." Nor does she know how the strict enforcement of wine regulations is going to affect the many new galleries that have sprung up on the Downtown Mall. "I like the fact we're a destination for art," she says.

The First Friday events been going on since the mid 1980s. So why is this wine-sipping tradition drawing the scrutiny of the ABC now?

Agent Davis, who caused a lot of grumbling among restaurateurs when he was assigned to the Corner last year, declined to speak with the Hook. His boss, Special Agent in Charge Roger Stevens, was unaware of Davis' crackdown until a reporter called, but confirms, "If an art gallery is open to the public, they're prohibited from serving alcohol without a banquet license."

His suggestion for for-profit galleries, which are not eligible for a banquet license: "They can't do it–" unless they send invitations and keep the receptions private.

And would the ABC have any qualms about busting a beloved Charlottesville tradition? 

"What if it was Joe Roe the Ragman?" asks Stevens. "Do I have a problem telling people they have to obey the law? Are we going to establish a double standard? The answer is going to be no."

Stevens compares sipping wine in an art gallery to drinking in public on the street. "That's a statutory law," he says, a Class 4 misdemeanor that can be enforced by the ABC and police.

He does offer one alternative to the galleries: The General Assembly can change the law.

"I'd be very interested in seeing what I could do about that," says Delegate David Toscano, who was concerned the crackdown could affect First Friday events and create statewide implications for the wine-and-cheese art scene.

When Toscano called the ABC, Stevens was able to suggest several short-term solutions, including having a nonprofit sponsor First Friday.

Stevens did not return subsequent calls from the Hook, but ABC spokeswoman Becky Gettings confirms that a qualified nonprofit could get a special events license. "They would need one for each location," explains Gettings. "The nonprofit employee or volunteer would have to purchase and serve the wine– not the employee of the art gallery."

McGuffey Art Center has obtained a banquet license for First Fridays since executive secretary Patti Dolezal read an article in the Washington Post a few years ago about art galleries being cited for serving wine at receptions. "They were busting people right and left," she recalls.

She says McGuffey is diligent about getting the license and checking IDs. "It's pretty serious consequences if you don't do that," she says.

Art gallery owners and directors say providing wine at First Friday can be expensive. Stoddard estimates she spends $350 on wine per opening, which is why Second Street seeks donations. 

Are dry First Fridays the way to go?

Second Street has considered dropping the wine because of its expense. But, says Stoddard, at openings where no wine is served, "We've seen a drop off in attendance."

"It's such a nice celebration," says Stoddard, after just the latest Second Street opening, at which 60 artists exhibited. "For centuries, it's so associated with an art opening: the wine and the sweaty blocks of cheese."

However, if the ABC enforces the rules regarding for-profit galleries, Stoddard says, "What would be tricky is if we ended up being the only people serving wine."

Artist Judy McLeod exhibited at the very first First Friday, when McGuffey teamed up with Second Street, then located on Second Street NE. "It's been going on for two decades," McLeod says, "and it's grown into this mega-event."

McLeod is perplexed by the notion of an art reception sans wine. "It's a national tradition," she says. "In Richmond they tried serving juice. It didn't go over."

Like so many others, McLeod is surprised to learn that most participants in Charlottesville's seemingly civilized art tradition are breaking the law. "That's terrible," she protests. "I guess the question is, why is this going on now?"

Cheers: Jeff Saine and Terri Allard enjoy art and beverages.