It’s a mystery that will probably haunt Sandra Mastroianni forever: Why, after 84 art shows, would the Los Angeles Police Department give her citations for serving alcohol and hosting live music—something she has done many times before at Cactus Gallery, the store on Eagle Rock Boulevard she has owned for nearly eight years?
It’s also a question that owners of other art galleries across Northeast L.A. would be wise to take note of. Regardless of past practices, if they attract the attention of the LAPD by serving alcohol or allowing live music without proper permits, they could get fined.
Busting a Potluck Party
Mastroianni’s travails began on the night of Saturday, Dec. 8, when as many 10 plainclothes LAPD officers showed up at her gallery in four cars, effectively disrupting what she described as a “potluck party,” replete with "middle-aged folks, infants, children, food, drink, whole families."
One of the LAPD officers had a bulletproof vest, with the word “Police” emblazoned on the back, according to Mastroianni. She was cited for serving alcohol and hosting live music. Most of Mastroianni’s guests left soon after the police arrived, she said.
The tickets, given at 8:15 p.m.—a far from unholy time—have sent shock waves across the regional art community, not least because this is the last month that Mastroianni’s gallery will remain open. (Cactus Gallery is scheduled to close Dec. 24 because, as Mastroianni tells it, the landlord who owns the property reneged on a promise to sell her the building where the store is located. Instead, the landlord has sold the building to someone else, according to Mastroianni.)
“I think we were targeted on purpose,” Mastroianni told Patch on Tuesday in the midst of handling what she said was a flood of customers and outraged sympathizers who had rallied around her after hearing the news of the citations on Patch as well as her Facebook page.
“Are they trying to use me as an example?” she asked, adding: “Our neighbors love us and our landlord loves us, so we don’t think anybody complained.”
Was the Music Too Loud?
Capt. Bill Murphy, the commander of the LAPD Northeast Area Community Police Station, concedes that it wasn’t a complaint that led his officers to Mastroianni’s gallery.
In a Tuesday interview to Patch, Murphy explained that Sgt. Fernando Carrasco, who heads the Northeast station’s vice unit, was patrolling Eagle Rock on Saturday when he “heard noise that was really loud for the area.”
When Carrasco went into the gallery, he discovered that a live band was playing and that alcohol was being served, according to Murphy. “I don’t think they were selling it, but some people got upset and really vocal and the sergeant decided to call more units,” Murphy said.
Mastroianni had set up a portable wooden bar in her gallery and placed a jar on top of it for tips, as she has done on numerous occasions in the past. She did not, however, sell any alcohol, she emphasized, even though that’s what she has been cited for.
Mastroianni denies the music at her gallery was noisy. “It was not loud,” she said. “It was a very sad and somber night.” The band, consisting of three women and a man, “maybe played two and a half songs” when the vice squad arrived, she said.
If anything, Spoke(n) Art, a group of regional bicycle riders who tour Northeast L.A.’s art galleries on the second Saturday of each month, and who dropped into Cactus that night, made a lot more noise. “They ride with a boom box and their music was louder than ours,” Mastroianni said.
The gallery owner does admit, however, that the people in her store got upset when the undercover officers arrived. “They were telling them, What are you doing? This is the [store’s] last night. There are friends and family here. Go fight crime.”
No Permit, No Alcohol Allowed
“The point that needs to be known is that an art gallery or any other business—a laundromat, tire shop, whatever—can’t just bring in wine and cheese and serve it,” Murphy said. “You have to get a permit for that—and that didn’t happen.”
Serving alcohol in a party atmosphere at art galleries has been what Murphy referred to as “a big deal” not in Eagle Rock but in nearby Silver Lake. Many galleries in the neighborhood would typically be open to “hundreds of people [with] alcohol flowing,” he said.
“You can’t be an art gallery that decides to serve alcohol,” Murphy said. “If you want to do that, there’s a way to do it—request a one-time event permit.” Besides a one-time permit to serve alcohol, which costs about $25 to $50, permits are also issued for one-time entertainment of the kind underway at Cactus Gallery on Saturday night, the captain said.
What if …
Asked if the vice officers at Cactus Gallery might have been lenient if the partygoers inside hadn’t kicked up a fuss, Murphy said the LAPD “couldn’t look the other way”—not just because a business “can’t dispense alcohol without a permit” but because of potential liability for the LAPD.
“If somebody [from the Cactus Gallery party] got drunk and got into a car accident, we’d be sued in a heartbeat if we didn’t cite them,” Murphy said.
Asked why Cactus’s Mastroianni was cited when she’s hardly the only art gallery owner in Northeast L.A. who has served alcohol to customers and guests, Murphy said: “It really boils down to what we know. In this particular case, there was a live band that brought attention to itself.”
Getting a permit from Alcohol Beverage Control, the state agency that oversees the licensing and law enforcement of alcohol sales, isn’t difficult, Murphy said, adding that a one-day ABC permit is “basically between the ABC, the captain, and you.” He offered the example of Occidental College, whose alumni host an annual event where alcohol is served, and who get the necessary permit for doing so.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Murphy said. “We like to be accommodating, but we can’t let the issue get out of control.”
NELA Vice Sweep?
The Northeast station’s vice squad is constantly checking on the roughly 360 bars and restaurants that have ABC licenses, Murphy said, adding that each establishment requires an inspection every two years.
The Northeast station captain denied that his vice squad has been aggressively targeting bars and restaurants in parts of Northeast L.A. lately, as a source who works closely with several targeted bars in Highland Park and Cypress Park told Patch on condition of anonymity.
While Carrasco has been on the job regularly as the head of the Northeast station’s vice unit for only the past year or so, the sergeant has plenty of experience working the vice beat, Murphy said. “It’s not that they’re doing anything different,” the captain said of the vice unit.
Community Meeting Next Week
Meanwhile, Murphy is planning to call a meeting sometime next week to explain the process whereby local businesses can apply for a one-time permit to serve alcohol on their premises.
The planned meeting followed talks that Murphy said he had with the office of Council member José Huizar Tuesday regarding Mastroianni’s citations.
Correction: The LAPD officers who arrived at Cactus Gallery were not "undercover," as an earlier version of this article said. They were plainclothes officers who weren't wearing uniforms.