Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Thirst Fridays

I'm beginning to feel like Carrie Nation, that busybody Prohibitionist who came from Kansas to Denver "because it was the nearest big city," surmises local historian Tom Noel, "and it was filled with vice." And not only did Carrie swing her hatchet at liquor bottles in local saloons, but she'd also take a whack at the fine art — usually pictures of naked ladies — that adorned those saloons.

So first Steve Horner sues the bar where I took him for an interview about his anti-ladies'-night campaign ("Last Call for Ladies' Nights," May 24), and now First Fridays are drying up.

And that's not good for a city where stumbling — sometimes literally — into a little gallery or cooperative on a Friday night and buying a piece by a local, often unknown, always underappreciated, artist is a time-honored tradition. It's not good for a city that today prides itself on its creative, if occasionally inebriated, class.

It's tough enough running an art gallery without having to deal with hatchet-wielding harridans. To make ends meet, a few local gallery owners had started renting out space after-hours for private parties — and recently, a couple of them found themselves facing city officials who informed them that such activities are in violation of state liquor law. Although not that politely. Because while you can rent a gallery for a private party and serve alcohol to your guests, as soon as you start charging — for admission, for drinks — you, or the space where you're partying, must have a permit. As for the galleries themselves, their openings are considered public events — which means that under state law, the galleries need some kind of liquor license in order to serve even wine-in-a-box swill.

Although Carrie Nation has yet to take a swing at any actual art openings, after I wrote about how the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs has been talking with Helen Gonzales, interim director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, to clarify the city's position on liquor at art openings ("Pour It On," May 3), the permit paranoia spilled over at First Friday events around town.

"Though she's refused to tell us for sure, Mayor Hick's Director of Excise & Licenses, Helen Gonzales, has apparently determined that it's necessary to interpret an arcane state statute so as to make it illegal for you to enjoy a complimentary glass of wine while you visit our gallery," read one sign posted on a Tennyson Street gallery on Friday, June 1. "Strange position for a dude who used to peddle beer for a livin', no?"

And while the free drinks have dried up, the rumors keep flowing.

In actuality, Gonzales hasn't altered her position — "public consumption is still prohibited per state statute," she notes — but she hasn't stepped up enforcement, either. Over the past month, her office and Cultural Affairs have put together a package of alcohol information for arts groups, a package that was just vetted by the Denver City Attorney's Office and will soon be disseminated...somehow. "We want to dispel the myth, get accurate information out, then calculate the next step and what the city involvement can be," explains arts-economic-development specialist Ginger White. "We need to educate people. There's this sense that things have changed, and they haven't."

But while the city's stance toward gallery openings hasn't changed, the areas around those galleries have — and it only takes one call from an irate, upscale neighbor to draw unwelcome attention to that illegal jug of Gallo. That's why the ultimate solution might be a change in state law, which would require a sympathetic, art-and-alcohol-appreciating legislator to push through a measure making it legal to offer liquor at art openings. And until such a lawmaking liquid asset appears, White is working with Colorado Lawyers for the Arts to help get the word out, whatever that word might be. The nonprofit has been fielding plenty of panicked calls, says director Jim Conder, who plans to soon post the city's informational packet on the group's website ( — with any luck, in advance of the next First Friday events, on July 6. And later this month, Cultural Affairs and CLA will hold a seminar on alcohol issues — a tangle that the nonprofit understands firsthand. To make sure its own fundraisers are legal, Conder says, "We hire a bartending service with its own liquor liability." That's not a fix that most small galleries can afford, so he hopes his group can come up with alternatives. "It's very much up in the air, but very much an issue," notes Conder. "I don't know if wine gets people in the door, but it helps set a tone."

Denver's Art District on Santa Fe remains officially dry on First Fridays, although some non-members continue to serve liquid refreshments. "My gallery stopped serving about two years ago," says Jack Pappalardo, president of the district and owner of Habitat Gallery. "Initially it was a way to attract people, but perhaps it's run its course. We're trying very hard to dispel the reputation of just a big party."

Besides, he adds, "We sell more art when we're not serving wine."

Carrie Nation would approve — but I have a houseful of art that argues otherwise.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun