NEWS- Dry idea: Galleries grapple with wine-free art

July 7 marked a new era in Charlottesville art-going– the first "First Friday" since an ABC agent decided, despite years of local custom, that wine was not necessarily de rigueur at art receptions.

Some galleries abandoned the libations. Others got creative, handing attendees invitations as they walked in the door. Still others tried to fly under the radar until galleries sort out how to assess the sobering effect of ABC laws on a beloved Charlottesville tradition.

"I couldn't take a chance of getting arrested," says Lyn Bolen Warren, owner of Les Yeux du Monde. She had a visit last month from ABC agent Kevin Davis, who warned that her gallery was breaking the law by serving wine with its cheese at First Friday, and that its only option was to exclude the hoi polloi and go invitation only.

Warren dropped the wine– and she says the move was definitely a topic of conversation at the upscale gallery last Friday. "A lot of people were thinking it's silly... misplaced efforts on the part of the ABC," she says.

Attendance was down, but she can't determine if that's because she didn't have a new show or because it's summer– or because she didn't serve wine.

Although Warren saved $500 by serving art sans wine, she's not sure that dry is the way to go. Nor is she thrilled with the possibility of purchasing a license every month, even if she would be allowed to do so. "It would be hard for me to afford it every time," she says.

"I would like to get a clearer idea of what's acceptable," she adds.

So would other galleries. The Piedmont Council of the Arts has the wine embargo on the agenda for its next meeting, and executive director Nancy Brockman says the organization is trying to schedule a meeting with the ABC.

In Virginia, a state with a monopoly on liquor sales, nothing is simple about how alcohol is offered and consumed, so no single license applies to all art venues. Nonprofits like Second Street or McGuffey– the only gallery properly licensed at the time of the ABC art raid besides restaurant galleries, which have their own liquor licenses– can apply for banquet licenses, which are not available to for-profit galleries like Les Yeux du Monde or Sage Moon. 

An ABC official initially said the for-profits' only option was to go invitation-only, the kiss of death for the throngs of art lovers who wander from gallery to gallery on First Fridays. 

After a call from Delegate David Toscano, the ABC suggested that an umbrella nonprofit could sponsor First Fridays and obtain a special events license for each location. Additional hoop-jumping would forbid gallery employees from buying or serving the wine.

Such a plan has yet to be implemented, and Sage Moon Gallery on the east end of the Downtown Mall decided to just veto the vino, at least temporarily. "While it's wonderful to have First Fridays with Fridays after 5, it seemed a lot of people were coming in who weren't interested in art," says owner Morgan Mackenzie-Perkins. 

Even before the ABC crackdown, she had considered abandoning wine, especially during the Fridays after 5 season. Her employees complained that they didn't have time to talk to people about art because they were too busy serving wine and keeping an eye on those drinking it.

She'll continue to serve wine at private parties, and is interested in working with the Piedmont Council. "There are a lot of ideas floating around, including changing the night [of First Fridays]," she says. "It's a challenge. We're all struggling to bring more business downtown. There has to be a happy medium."

Migration owner Rob Jones investigated the rules about the widespread practice of serving wine when he and his wife were setting up their gallery back in January, so he was surprised when an ABC agent showed up at the gallery last month.

"There are many ways to do that," says Jones. "It's a small community. A phone call would have accomplished the same thing. I don't know if it was necessary to come in with a badge on a First Friday with people here."  

With great weather and the Downtown Mall's 30th anniversary celebration, Migration had a great turnout July 7– even serving just "a very nice punch," says Jones. "We're going to obey the law."

Still, First Fridays with its wine, cheese and art "is a tradition we like," he says. And if there's a way to serve wine legally, "We'd like to take part."

[See "Photophile" page for more on this consuming issue–editor.]

Les Yeux du Monde owner Lyn Bolen Warren, center, at a First Friday in the days when Charlottesville could still toast an artist's work with wine.