Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Gallery owners tell liquor cops to back off

Frustrated Queen West galleries want liquor laws changed

Angered by repeated liquor enforcement busts they characterize as government harassment, gallery owners along the arty Queen West strip are speaking out to demand changes to the province’s approach to licensing cultural events.

Since January enforcement officers from the Alcohol And Gaming Commission Of Ontario (AGCO) have made a number of high-profile busts at Queen West venues, including Spin Gallery, Come As You Are and the Museum Of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA). Gallery owners complain that inspectors are acting in a heavy-handed manner to enforce a law that is outdated and confusing, and are meeting with law enforcement and provincial politicians to demand changes to the laws.

“We realized that this is out of fucking hand,” says Spin Gallery codirector Stewart H Pollock of the AGCO. They’re just a thorn in people’s side. “They’ve been here 17 times in the last four years.”

In Ontario, anyone who wants to sell or distribute liquor outside of a private establishment or a licensed bar, club or restaurant requires a special occasion permit (SOP) from the AGCO. Permits are issued for events ranging from fundraisers to community events to trade shows to wine clubs. Applicants for permits are required to comply with a list of rules that Pollock says are confusing and don’t make sense for art galleries.

The most cumbersome regulation for art galleries, says Pollock, is that the events may not be open to the public, and that applicants must have a complete guest list of everyone invited.

“They won’t even accept ‘plus one,'” says Pollock. “They want the name, address and phone number of everyone visiting and on principle I won’t give it to them. They come in, they say they got in without a guest list so you’re in violation, and they shut down the bar.”

Queer artist Chris Ablett, whose erotic photography exhibit at Come As You Are was busted by the AGCO in January, says the requirement is intrusive. As her event was queer- and trans-themed, she was afraid many of her guests would not want their names and addresses on a record that could be seized by the government.

“As a queer or trans person, how many people want to put their names down on a list, knowing that this could be given to police? To have your name on a guest list seems a little bit harassing,” she says.

Other aspects of the regula-tions can be confusing, too, says Pollock. The regulations stipulate that food must be served, but don’t say how much or what kinds, other than to disqualify “snacks.” Applicants are required to provide security for the event, but no guidelines are provided to detail how much security is needed or what training they require. The application also says that applicants “may not profit directly or indirectly from the sale of alcohol at the event,” but Pollock says the definition of “profit” is unclear, considering the number of expenses that go into an event.

“I don’t think there’s any gallery that makes money off of booze,” says Pollock. “You must shut the bar when the bar breaks even, and I asked them, ‘break even on what? The liquor, the cost of the bartenders and security, the heat for the building?’ They can’t tell me that.”

But Ab Campion, a spokesperson for the AGCO contends the law is perfectly clear.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out your responsibilities under an SOP,” he says. “It would appear in [Ablett’s] case, that they didn’t take the time to read the responsibilities under the special occasion permit. Ignorance of the law or disinterest in the law is not an excuse to break the law.”

Campion also denies that the AGCO is specifically targeting art galleries or the Queen West strip.

“What they’re doing this year is focussing on the operation of people who hold special occasion permits. This is an enforcement strategy we have and we enforce it all across Ontario, not just in Toronto,” says Campion. “We’re not specifically focussing on art galleries, we’re focussing on people who have SOPs.”

Pollock doesn’t buy it.

“There’s 40,000 licensed establishments in the province and 70,000 permits [annually], and there’s only 30 or so inspectors,” he says. “How can they come here 17 times?”

Rosario Marchese, NDP MPP for Trinity-Spadina, also questions the AGCO’s enforcement.

“We’re being told that some of these organizations have inspectors there on a regular basis, whenever there’s a function,” he says. “How do we have enough staff to look at them? Are they not inspecting other places?”

The frequent busts have had a chilling effect on the art community in Queen West. Come As You Are has decided not to bother with liquor licences in light of the January bust, and Spin has lost clients who don’t want to be subject to liquor busts.

“I’ve lost a few events at the gallery because they don’t want to get busted. Nobody wants a cop to come into a wedding,” says Pollock.

“The idea that to have a hot meal available in an art gallery is ludicrous. If a European collector is walking by [who isn’t on the list], I can’t let him in. I can’t sell art at an opening [unless it’s] in a roped- off section,” he says.

Marchese worries that the recent spate of enforcements may have a negative impact on Toronto’s cultural industries.

“Sometimes we might discourage activities that bring people here or to cultural events,” he says.

Members of the art community have set up a meeting on Wed, Jun 13 at Spin to vent their concerns to Marchese and members of the AGCO, in order to find a long-term solution to the problem.

“What we’d like to do is have Rosario go back to the government and say that the legislation has to change so that the art galleries are dealt with differently,” says Pollock. “Even a concise one-or two-page sheet that they can abide by. It’s all interpretive laws on their part, and every time they interpret it they interpret it differently.”

Art galleries have to be dealt with differently than other special events, says Pollock, because of the role alcohol traditionally plays in art-world events.

“It’s a cultural tradition the world over. As long as people were having receptions for art, there’s been wine at art events,” says Pollock. “It relaxes people, it keeps people in the room. If they’re going to be around and have conversations, the alcohol keeps them there. It’s just part of the whole environment, the social aspect of it. Are we that puritanical that we needto police this?”

For his part, Marchese says he is open to pushing for legislative change if necessary.

“We want to see if the problems stem from the law or the enforcement of the law,” he says. “If it’s an amendment to the law that we have to make, then I’ll do that, or talk to AGCO.”