If your job is to be young, to be pretty and thin, to pose for long hours on a white background next to luxury objects – what, then, are you? A model? Or a woman entering the art world? On Gallery Girls, a new Bravo series voyeuring the lives of underpaid and overphotographed bitches on New York's art beat, the answer is both.
For a reality show, Gallery Girls is saddeningly accurate. I don't mean that the seven cats out of hell who've sacrificed their best intentions to be their worst selves on TV present verisimilitude, per se. But their presence indicates a deep, haute, Hirst-era cynicism with a cyclical and commercial art world. They are models in the world's fourth-largest unregulated market, a world of late-capitalist exchange with increasingly little value relative to auction highs. And as models, they can't be ignored.
Ashley Mears, sociologist and author of Pricing Beauty, wrote that "taking models seriously is a way of taking women seriously, wherever we find them." These poster girls – from the uptowners who compare getting false eyelashes to "getting surgery" to the downtowners who "feel like [we're] being raped" when unattractive men creep them at a wine bar – are no way of taking seriously the art world's women. This isn't just because reality TV lives to give us girls we can hate. It's because the reality of the art market is, more and more, that the best way to make money in it is to be rich. And if you can't be rich, appeal to rich men.
"These gallery girls epitomize the malaise of a tired, corrupted art system run by people who have no idea what they are really doing," says Julia Kennedy, a Canadian relational artist and writer who told me watching the show made her want to cry. "They just want to be seen doing something. Artists have a publicity now that requires handling [by gallery girls and PR girls] and a lot of Champagne. It's an uncreative way to reaffirm the glamour, the exclusivity of who gets to participate."
At least half the Gallery Girls have trust funds, and all but one have beauty privilege. Liz, the blonde with the least degrading of the three unpaid internships, scored it 'cause her dad is a "super-wealthy collector." She says she'll "be fine with Eli," as in Eli Klein Gallery, because her boss wants her daddy's money. Maggie, despite taking Charlotte York as her model, seems more clued: "Sometimes I think half the reason Eli has an art gallery is so he can have pretty girls to boss around."
Boys, pretty boys, work in galleries too, but there are not so many that one could imagine a show called Gallery Boys. Does this matter? Yes, when the ratio of males to females working at floor level is inverted at the top, it matters. Only three (!!!) of the 270 highest-auctioning works in the world between 2008 and 2011 were made by women. The other 267 (I don't have enough exclamation points) were made by men, though not all by hand. Koons legendarily never touches a brush: In a recent New York Times Magazine mini-memoir, one of his former male assistants told of being paid $14 an hour, after art school, to paint Cracked Egg, which sold in 2003 for $501,933. A feudal system full of absentee overlords exploits men just as much, but more often for their talent.
And at least they're touching, not just handing off, the art. "To some of these girls," says Kennedy, "I feel like the concept of working in the art world is so abstracted by the lack of hands-on closeness, or humanizing connection, to the primitive essence of art."
"Handling million-dollar works of art in four-inch heels is not outside the norm," says Elena Soboleva of Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Smart, impeccably mannered, and very, very pretty, she interned at galleries in Toronto and at Christie's in New York before landing the job. "The assumptions [about gallery girls] aren't completely false, but often overlook the passion for art and intelligence that many of these women possess. Yes, Thursday-night openings are weekly excuses to drink PBR in Proenza, but placing works of artists you care about into important collections, ensuring their lasting significance, is the rewarding part of our careers."
When I think about who gives the reward, it still doesn't feel like a prize.
"Gallery Girls offers up a devastating model for future generations: the Stepford Gallerist," wrote Piper Marshall, assistant curator at the Swiss Institute, in a scathing ArtForum post. I read it and remembered one of my first weekends in Manhattan, when I took the trains out to Greenpoint, pre-Girls, for a loft party. It was a bad scene even before the cameras showed up. They started filming. A beauty, all in black, with the longest, shiniest hair I'd ever seen, stopped dancing and began delivering heavily italicized lines in the hallway. I tried to suss out the subject of this new reality show, but it was just her, saying nothing about nothing. Someone told me the cameras were from Bravo.
"It's, like, The Real Housewives of Greenpoint," I joked. But it wasn't funny.