Gallery Girls, Bravo’s latest reality television venture, follows the trials of seven young women as they navigate the ‘New York Art World.’ They are gallery assistants, aspiring photographers, and art advisors. Some live off trust funds, others have part time jobs. Some are die hard Brooklynites, others never venture beyond the Upper East Side. Despite their differences, all of them aspire to create successful careers in the art world. Several critics have already argued that, as far as quality of content goes, Gallery Girls runs in the same league as Bravo’s reality television trademark The Real Housewives, except they’ve traded unfulfilled millionaires’ wives for unfulfilled 20-somethings and switched botox and charity events with ‘art’ and gallery openings. Audiences witness the banal and contrived interactions of the show’s protagonists—waiting to see who will shoot a dramatic look at who, and hoping that all of their white girl problems will be solved by the end of the episode.
Yet Gallery Girls is particularly well-situated to make insightful cultural commentary, for the ‘New York Art World’—an insulated network of artists, curators, gallery owners, collectors, art dealers, writers, and critics—is very much real. I was once a gallery girl, a title I am embarrassed to own up to after it’s become a reality television moniker and mockery. Yet I had a productive and fulfilling run as an unpaid gallery intern. Sure, there was sweeping and spackling, and one of my main duties was “updating the gallery’s social media output,” but for the most part, my job allowed me to meet and write about emerging artists, and I ended with an opportunity to curate my first New York show.
These are experiences that are totally lost in the show, mainly because there is little, if any, mention of actual art. To the girls of Gallery Girls, art is nothing but a justification to lead self-indulgent lifestyles and only becomes relevant when attached to a hefty price tag. The show conflates pursuing a career in the art world with leading a privileged party-girl lifestyle, taking for granted the very artworks that make working as a gallery assistant fulfilling and exciting. The girls of Gallery Girls are alienated from the art-making process and aloof to the very community that they claim they want to promote. Two of the girls, Chantal and Claudia, open a ‘hybrid art space’ on the Lower East Side, which turns out to be less of an experimental creative hub and more of a high end fashion boutique with two or three paintings on the wall, none of which they ever sell. There’s never any interaction or conversation about which artists they work with or what type of art they want to feature in their space.
And when the girls of Gallery Girls do talk about art, the conversation is overlaid with tedium and ridicule. In one scene, Liz has dinner with gallery director Eli Klein, and complains when he talks excessively about Chinese artists. Note that Klein is her boss, and they work at a gallery dedicated to contemporary Chinese art. Perhaps the worst offender is Amy, who interns with an art advisor. While visiting an art fair, she is asked to pick a piece that reflects her personal taste. Instead of taking the time to learn about and appreciate lesser-known artists, Amy chooses a work by Damien Hirst because he is “one of the most famous contemporary artists out there.” The only time the girls truly perk up at the sight of artwork is when they visit Philips de Pury for an auction. Of course the art that’s being sold isn’t shown or even talked about; they just get excited because it’s selling for so much money.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gallery Girls is not where it clearly goes wrong, but where the show gets it right, especially in the gender norms that are reproduced in the show. Gallery Girls suggests that unless you are an attractive, thin, upper-class white female there’s no place for you in the entry echelon of the art world. Although there’s little data on the gender ratio of unpaid gallery interns, the show reinforces the stereotype that working as a gallery assistant is a pink-collar job assigned only to attractive young females with little pay and minimal opportunity for advancement. This stereotype speaks true to the gender makeup of leading art world professions. Women are consistently only 15 percent of the names on Artforum’s, Art + Auction’s, and ArtReview’s annual “power lists,” and according to analysis of the current membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors, less than 30 percent of mid-size and large institutions are led by women.
The situation is even direr for female artists. The Guerilla Girls, a radical feminist group of artists founded in 1985 devoted to drawing attention to continuing gender and racial inequity in creative professions, gathered some telling statistics: “Less than 3 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections [of the Museum of Modern Art] are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.” An article in The Economist titled “The Price of Being Female” retold an all too common incident in New York auction houses: “The proceeds on all the works by women artists in the Christie’s sale tallied up to a mere $17m—less than 5% of the total and not even half the price achieved that night by a single picture of two naked women by Yves Klein.” That said, if men overwhelmingly hold power in the art world, both as artists and as art professionals, watching Gallery Girls raises the question—where are the gallery guys?
Yet, compared to other art world careers, the gallery scene is a particularly viable space for successful women. In 2006, art critic Jerry Saltz found that of the 125 well-known New York galleries, 42 percent were owned or co-owned by women, a surprisingly even ratio. Female gallerists have proven that they are able to foster art world success despite facing continuously unequal standards. As an aspiring female gallerist and curator, the most disappointing result of Gallery Girls is that although there are scores of successful women in the art world, it is over-privileged and talentless girls who get on TV.
ANA ALVAREZ B’13 is more of a guerrilla girl than a gallery girl.