Art In sorts out its head-spinning problem with occupancy limits
The city has raised the venue's capacity to 95, after months of confusion.
Art In, an east-side venue that had to reduce its capacity by almost half in December, is ready to get back to normal after a confusing few months of back-and-forth with City of Madison officials. Owner Jack Chandler says that he's reached an agreement with the city that sets Art In's occupancy limit at 95. (In a post this Saturday on Art In's Facebook page, he said it's 99, but he confirmed with me that it's 95. It's not clear why the Facebook post gives a different number. "The explanation is not worth the extra 4 people," Chandler says.)
The venue operated for about three years with the understanding that it could allow in a maximum of 99 patrons. But the City Attorney's Office, Madison police, and the city building inspector cracked down at the end of 2018, informing Chandler that he had to cap attendance at 49 people. This put real financial pressure on an independent venue that hosts music ranging from hip-hop to rock to the avant-garde, and it didn't make sense to anyone in the music community. Plenty of smaller spaces in town have a higher occupancy limit than 49, and at about 1,200 square feet, Art In could comfortably hold more than 95. So, over the first few months of this year, Chandler consulted with an architect and worked to sort things out with the city, all the while dealing with the prospect of reduced attendance at shows and reduced alcohol sales.
"I sat down with three police officers and the [assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy], this was like in February," Chandler says. "It was all basically like, 'We understand that you're confused, because we're also confused about what your capacity is.'"
In the City of Madison, the Building Inspection Division has the final say over occupancy limits. All sorts of factors inform that decisions, from how many toilets a business has to how many exits it has to whether or not it has a fire-sprinkler system. The city's Alcohol License Review Committee can also attach an occupancy limit to a liquor or entertainment license, and for some reason it can set a different one than the Building Inspection Division. If the city officials who make the rules admitted to Chandler that they were confused, that might indicate a problem with this process.
As best I can understand it—and I asked Chandler to go over it several times with me this week—the problem ultimately came down to the fact that there are two businesses on the first floor at 1444 East Washington Ave.: Art In and the Parched Eagle taproom. They are distinct spaces, but patrons from both end up wandering back into Art In's large show room and use the same set of bathrooms.
"If somebody comes in here and then buys a shot, walks next door and buys a beer, and then walks into the back room and watches the show, whose patron are they?" Chandler asks.
He made that argument to city officials, and it seems like they eventually conceded that they needed to treat Art In and Parched Eagle as a package deal with a combined, higher occupancy limit. Zilavy emailed Chandler on April 19 to confirm that it's now set at 95.
Chandler sums it up this way: "We are at 49, they are at 46. Together we form like Voltron and make 95."
City Building Inspector George Hank contends that he's always accepted this argument about the two businesses sharing that total occupancy limit. "We were always OK with one having the 45 and the other having the 48, whatever the numbers are [the correct numbers are 49 for Art in and 46 for Parched Eagle —ed.], and as long as between the two of them, they didn't exceed 95, we didn't care."
If what Hank says is true, that leaves open the question of why the city made an issue of this in the first place.
If anything, the issue is now even more confusing than it was before. But Art In, and everyone who organizes or plays shows there, can breathe a little easier for now.
I've reached out to Zilavy and Building Inspector George Hank for further comment and will update this story if I hear back.