Tom Waits toasting youth.
  • mfehrenbach via Flickr
  • Tom Waits toasting youth.
Art gallery owners in Pioneer Square say they were the target of an undercover Washington State Liquor Control Board sting this month, after several gallery workers were criminally cited for offering complimentary glasses of wine to an undercover 19-year-old WSLCB aide during the neighborhood's popular First Thursday art walk. Businesses commonly have beer and wine available for people to enjoy.

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"They sent in an underage person working for them to grab alcohol and leave the place with it," explained one gallery owner, who asked to remain anonymous. "Then they sent in an undercover plain clothes cop to confront the business owners and in my case warned me that I need to card everyone and if it happens again I will face criminal charges."

But the WSLCB says the sting came as a direct result of a 19-year-old who allegedly got drunk at the popular art walk and then received a DUI while driving home. Her family filed a complaint with the board.

"Our main concern is public safety," says Brian Smith, spokesman for the WSLCB. "Whenever we receive a complaint, we follow up on locations. We wouldn’t have gone through the effort of these premise checks without a complaint."

Smith says that the results of last Thursday's sting were "cause for concern. Our undercover aid hit six art galleries, and in the six locations, they all provided liquor to the 19-year-old. We witnessed 100 percent noncompliance."

The targeted locations included: Shotgun Ceremonies, Statements Distinctive Tile & Stone, Art Exchange, Flatcolor Gallery, Seattle Center of Contemporary Art, and Art Studio.

One gallery owner argues that facilitating this type of alcohol compliance check during First Thursday this month was unfair, given that Seafair was also occurring. "I had tons of drunks up and down the street who had nothing to do with art walk." Others say that on this particular First Thursday, policing their businesses with larger-than-normal crowds, many of them already drinking, was overwhelming.

But Smith says the problem is many galleries don't have the proper training for serving alcohol to the public. In 2009, legislation was adopted that allowed art galleries and wedding boutiques to offer a complimentary glass of wine or beer to patrons without having to go through the hassle of obtaining a banquet license or special occasion license. Since then, more businesses have opted to do so. "We offered some of the art galleries training in advance of the summer activities and were turned down," Smith says. "Since then, some have come forward and said they want the training."

Because the galleries aren't licensed, they can't be slapped with an administrative violation from the WSLCB like a bar would in this situation. Instead, the penalty is shouldered by the person serving the alcohol, who receives a criminal citation for offering alcohol to a minor. Like a traffic fine, it requires the person to go to court and pay a fine. For a first offense, the fine is typically in the range of $500, says Smith.