A Warm Fuzzy

by Walter Pierce

Members of Lafayette’s cultural economy show support for Artmosphere at hearing before state officials.

Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp, right, hugs a supporter following the Feb. 24 hearing.
Photo by Walter Pierce

By the time Commissioner Troy Hebert opened up proceedings to public comment during Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp’s hearing before the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control on Feb. 25 in Lafayette, it was pretty obvious that Artmosphere would not have its liquor license revoked. Kemp and her attorney, Cade Evans, had resubmitted sales figures that among other things leveraged a little-known aspect of state law — sales of whole bottles of wine don’t count as “alcohol sales” — and Artmosphere had exceeded 50-plus percent in food sales as required by law during the venue’s probationary period in the second half of 2014.

But still they came to the podium from a City- Parish Council auditorium half full of musicians, music producers and others who support Artmosphere and see it as something more than either a restaurant or a bar.

“I’d be happy to never see another Nitetown or Marley’s or what have you open up for the rest of the history of this city,” musician Andrew Toups, keyboard player for Feufollet, told Hebert. “As far as Artmosphere being a bar or not, or a restaurant, I don’t think the law can recognize this, but people don’t go there to drink; they go there to see music or, for lack of a better word, to have some sort of cultural experience. I’ve lived here my entire life, and there’s no place you can go that does what Artmosphere does in a more positive way.”

Arts programmer Jim Phillips echoed Toups’ perspective: “This is a quality of life issue for me,” Phillips said, noting that the hearing was his second involving ATC; the first was a little over year ago concerning the infamous and now-shuttered Jefferson Street mega-club Karma. At that hearing Phillips was on the side of those wanting Karma’s liquor license yanked.

“It’s odd to me that Karma stayed open for years; there were shootings, stabbings, marijuana sold openly,” he said. “[Artmosphere is] a place where artists hone their skills. It’s much more than a restaurant or a bar.”

Calling Artmosphere “a treasure for this city,” musician Jeff LeBlanc also emphasized Armosphere’s “otherness”: “There are a lot of bars in this city and they’re heartless, they’re trouble. They’re places where police really ought to be looking at,” he said. “But when you come to Artmosphere it’s like a warm fuzzy. That’s the best way I can put it, and I’ve played everywhere, man, believe me.”

Kemp spent more than $28,000 of her own money on food during Artmosphere’s June-December probation, most of which was given away, in an effort to massage the venue’s sales figures — a practice Hebert said at the hearing was against the law. But the affable commissioner, citing Kemp’s exorbitant personal expense, chose not to levy a fine, telling her, “The $30,000 you spent is fine enough.”

Artmosphere’s liquor license is up for renewal in October. Hebert told Kemp he expected another accounting of the venue’s sales at that time. But in the meantime, Artmosphere can keep doing what it’s been doing — facilitating the culture of South Louisiana.

“To me that’s the real value of it, and it has nothing to do with whether it is a bar or a restaurant,” Toups of Feufollet observed. “[Artmosphere] serves a function, to me, that is much higher and more precious.”