Gallery owner Loren Naji longs for artworks to be seen. But abstract charcoal drawings, cartoonish watercolors and mixed-media sculptures were locked away in his Loren Naji Studio Gallery for months. It has been shut down since May, when the Ohio Liquor Control and the Cleveland Fire Department raided it on separate occasions for serving alcohol without a permit and not having an occupancy permit.
So Naji asked artists to take their pieces elsewhere as he focused on cleaning, painting and freshening up the Ohio City venue, crafted his own art and continued setting up a new interstellar-themed Satellite Gallery in Collinwood for a November opening.
Silver-painted panels with porthole windows cover an East Side single-story house-turned-gallery, making Satellite look like a spaceship thrown out of orbit. Behind the hatch, paintings of barren terrain and a craggy tangle of planetary matter hang in a space that evolves every two to three months. Here, Naji has created a means to explore the unexplored, removing the earthly boundaries from art.
Yet his struggles have sucked him into a legal wormhole where he's emerged as a troublemaking scofflaw or an activist for artists and galleries or both. "I questioned what I was doing [at Satellite]," he says. "I questioned what I was doing in Cleveland. But I had to honor my commitments."
The Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, ArtPlace America and the Kresge Foundation all awarded him grants for Satellite, so Naji pressed on, even though he was carefully watched.
"I had to clean it to get an occupancy permit," Naji says. "Cleveland has been looking at me with a microscope."
Naji has been a fixture on the local art scene for nearly 25 years. He studied graphic design at Kent State University and painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Naji wanted to be an artist, but he needed to make money. So he painted signs. After splattering paint on the rug in his Chesterland living room, he found a condemned building in Cleveland Heights to use as a gallery and studio in the early 1980s.
His West 25th Street location followed. In May, Naji had a gallery show, and beer was available. Naji didn't have a permit to sell alcohol but he was giving it to guests and asking for tips for the band. Several Liquor Control representatives then confiscated about $700 in beer and wine. Three weeks later, Naji hosted another show — with no alcohol this time. The fire department shut it down for lack of an occupancy permit. By late October, the occupancy permit issue was resolved and Naji paid a $100 fine plus court costs.
Cleveland councilman Joe Cimperman says in a city full of art galleries, Naji's problems — and the solutions that may result — could have far-reaching implications.
"The transparency of this process will help others," says Cimperman, who's working with Naji to get the necessary permits and to update the city's building code.
Naji says the local art scene used to be split between East and West, but "the last couple of years, the art scene has become very unified."
To help foster that relationship, Naji hosted an East Meets West gallery show between his Ohio City location and Gallery 160 in the Waterloo Arts District. He hired a taxi to shuttle passengers between the two locations, and another idea was born. A dilapidated Chevrolet RV, which will have the logo ART painted on it in the same font used by the RTA, is getting a new exterior paint job, and couches and shag carpeting inside. It is expected take people between galleries in the Cleveland area starting in spring 2015.
Although legal issues set Naji off course, his mission remains unchanged. He believes artists add value to our city because they can stabilize neighborhoods and offer creativity and vitality.
"I love to have big parties and celebrate art and make Cleveland exciting and make Ohio City vibrant," he says.