For more than a decade, some Laguna Beach galleries and art-related businesses have served complimentary wine and beer to guests browsing collections during the First Thursdays Art Walk — a free monthly event.
The owners may not have known they needed a license to serve the beverages, but many said they never encountered resistance from the authorities — until three weeks ago.
On Nov. 3, undercover officers from the Laguna Beach Police Department and the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control cited five galleries and two other businesses for serving alcohol without a license, Laguna Beach police Sgt. Tim Kleiser said.
The action has upset some owners.
"I was completely shocked that no warning was given," said Pam Panattoni, president of Laguna North Gallery. "[Police] were inside the gallery at 6 p.m. They could have said, 'This is not allowed.' They waited an hour and handed a citation."
Laguna North is a cooperative of 13 members who deal in oil, pastel and watercolor paintings. Panattoni said the gallery doesn't serve wine at every Art Walk, which is held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. — and when it does, only about an ounce is pre-poured into plastic cups.
At Nuance Home + Lifestyle, assistant manager Katherine Caporale said, officers "acted like they were interested in art and flashed their badges."
The business sells interior furnishings and features artists.
"It was weird," said Caparole, adding that the business has served wine and cheese during Art Walk before without a fuss.
"We had not heard anything before that indicated there would be enforcement," she said. "If we were told, we would not have served it."
Kleiser said police sent a letter to businesses that said the department "has experienced some issues during Thursday's Art Walk."
According to a copy of the letter, problems included amplified music or outside speakers, drinking in public, intoxicated subjects and displays creeping onto sidewalks.
The city's code prohibits the consumption of alcohol in a public place, including on streets, sidewalks and parking lots, the letter said.
Of the seven businesses cited, Kleiser said, six served wine and one served beer.
Torrey Cook, vice president of the First Thursdays Art Walk board, said 25 people met with police and an ABC agent in late October to discuss various issues related to the monthly events, including outdoor displays, music and the rules regarding the serving of alcohol.
Cook said the meeting, organized by police, was sparsely attended. "Not many gallery owners showed up," she said.
Cook, founder and owner of Artists Republic Gallery, said she had no idea police would arrive at galleries Nov. 3 — unannounced and not in uniform. Cook, who does not serve alcohol, said she discovered the next day that officers had been inside the gallery.
"It's really disheartening," Cook said. "We work really hard to have an artist reception. No one communicated to stop serving alcohol. It doesn't seem nice or respectful."
Kleiser said police and ABC officers had been patrolling bars and restaurants, looking for employees who tried to serve alcohol to an underage decoy accompanying them. He said he was not sure how or if that operation morphed into the galleries.
All seven citations issued were considered criminal misdemeanors, meaning they could result in a maximum $1,000 fine, up to one year in jail or both, according to Kleiser.