by Josh Usmani
UPDATE: View video interview on Sun 5/4/14 with Loren Naji here, to update the situation since the police action on Fri 5/2/14.
Earlier in the evening on Fri 5/2/14, while most of Cleveland was being “Dazzled” in Playhouse Square, undercover local and state police raided local artist Loren Naji’s Studio Gallery in Ohio City during the opening reception of Undercurrent – featuring work by 3 of the region’s most talented graffiti artists. When I arrived at the gallery, police were in the process of cataloging and confiscating all the gallery’s alcohol. The gallery’s curtains were pulled closed, and the guests were waiting on the sidewalk. After speaking with many witnesses, here’s the story the best that I understand it:
At the beginning of the reception, police arrived at the gallery claiming to be responding to a complaint of a disturbance. The reception started at 6pm, and was scheduled to conclude sometime after midnight. Witnesses said the police’s first visit was around 5:30-6:30pm – probably setting a world record for response-time. Upon their initial visit, witnesses claim that the police left with everyone under the impression that it was a “false alarm” and the situation was under control. After all, the party wasn’t even getting started yet.
However, a short time later, about half a dozen plain-clothed, undercover police arrived claiming that it was “illegal for galleries to give away alcohol”. Naji (and just about every gallery in America) serves alcohol (as well as a large spread of food) at his openings. Every time I’ve been to an opening at his gallery, he’s always had a volunteer checking the younger visitors’ IDs (I distinctly remember Naji himself checking my ID on my first visit to his gallery). Galleries don’t sell alcohol – that’s illegal without a permit. However, almost every gallery serves some kind of alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) refreshments with donation jars. In tough economic times, these donations can sometimes be the difference between paying the rent and feeding yourself.
Participating artist Bob Peck asked the police if they’d be going around to all the galleries having receptions this evening (there were many). The officer then told Peck to “back off” because they knew who he was. When Peck asked the officer who they thought he was, they said his full name. “Investigating me for what?” asked Peck, and the officer just walked away.
Regular guests of the gallery claim that one of Naji’s neighbors has been calling the authorities to complain about the past three opening receptions. Naji regularly has large crowds (but nothing too out of the ordinary for Cleveland’s art community) and usually has a band playing in his back room. However, this isn’t a residential area, and there has never been any kind of incident at a reception in his gallery.
Police became agitated as witnesses began to take photos and videos of their actions. Authorities then kicked everyone out of the gallery as they cataloged every bottle of alcohol, emptied every drop of alcohol, and carried them away into an unmarked black van.
When they were finished, guests were allowed back in the gallery, and they left in 5 different, unmarked vehicles. It’s not clear exactly what the repercussions will be, but Naji said he was informed that he would have to go to court over the matter. If Naji is guilty, so is every curator and gallery professional to ever host a reception in Cleveland – myself included. Naji lost hundreds of dollars in confiscated alcohol and lost even more in potential donations. The art community is a very tight-knit, protective group, and Naji is one of our cultural leaders. I have no doubt that there will be a strong, appropriate response soon. Videos with Naji and Peck coming soon. Stay tuned as this story unfolds.
In the name of full disclosure, Naji hosted my Funny Money show back in December at 78th Street Studios. I consider him, Peck and fellow Undercurrent artist Steve Ehret to be friends.