The New York art world is a place where egos, off-shore bank accounts, and matters of ineffable taste cohabit—where real money is paid for goods that resist commodification and everyone really does wear black. It's a glamour industry inflected with an air of intellectualism: easy to esteem and even easier to mock. Glitz and impenetrability make it fun to speculate about from afar, while the intricacy of the ecosystem proves difficult to document.
But Bravo, that behemoth of reality TV programming, has tried. Best known for series that pit practitioners of telegenic crafts like cooking and dress-draping against each other, its producers have also sought to import the rivalries of Top Chef and Project Runway into the artist’s studio. In Work of Art, which premiered in the summer of 2010, young artists competed for a cash prize and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, their work judged—to the surprise of many—by actual art-world eminences like New York magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz and Simon de Pury, the chairman and co-founder of one the largest auction houses in the world.* But whatever insider glimpse the series promised was offered through the wrong peephole. Work of Art revealed that the "creative process" isn't what's captivating about the art world, at least as television. It’s the money and power and personalities we’re interested in. Nobody wants to watch paint dry.
So Bravo is giving it another shot. Gallery Girls, which premieres tonight, is a second attempt to capture the New York art world—this time, from the perspective of aspiring dealers, rather than the artists they keep in their stables. The show provides pretty girls, not plein air easels; demanding bosses instead of decoupage. Its cameramen track the lives of seven twentysomething women as they “tackle the cutthroat environment of the art world while vying for their dream jobs.” These caricatured creatures are simultaneously master and slave: capable of steely intimidation, but mostly responsible for menial labor (inventory updating, salad ordering, plane-ticket purchasing). Bravo, of course, has chosen to downplay the degrading tasks and emphasize the power dynamics that come alive after-hours. Competition among the women on the show isn’t literalized in the form of elimination rounds, but it does play out in the now-familiar reality TV language of catty exchanges and wounded reaction shots.
The series purports to be panoramic—an identifier and taxonomizer of a glamorous New York City species. This approach conveniently obscures the fact that it is impossible to imagine the show’s cast members, who work at unlike establishments and live in different boroughs, ever coming into voluntary contact with one other unless prompted by producers. As with The Real Housewives franchise, the content of Gallery Girls is contingent upon contrived social interactions. We watch these heterogeneous cast members "run into each other" at the unlikeliest of crossroads, perpetuating the thrilling mass-illusion that New York is a place of serendipitous charm.
The first of these manufactured events commences about 30 minutes into the first episode. An opening at a B-list gallery brings the whole cast under one SoHo roof, where a series of plot-advancing encounters unfolds. Maggie, the gallery’s on-again-off-again intern, brings her beefy boyfriend, but there are innuendos about a secret romantic past with her boss. She’s visibly unnerved by the arrival of a confident new intern, Liz, who has a diamond nose stud and, more menacing, one of the most important contemporary art collectors in the country for a father. Liz has a tortured conversation with Amy, a brassy blond and “certified ass-kisser” who interns for an uptown art adviser. Amy later in the evening gives her business card to Kerri, a tawny, statuesque “lifestyle manager” from Long Island who has (obscurely) pegged an art internship as the best way to enter the boutique hotel business. Shifting about the periphery of the room is Chantal, a raven-haired southern belle with the brows and BMI of Mary-Kate Olsen, who co-owns a hybrid art/gallery space on the Lower East Side with her placid-faced business partner Claudia. Chantal and Claudia are both friends with Angela, an aspiring photographer and (erotic) model, whose Vietnamese-American parents disapprove of her polyvocational lifestyle. All three live in Brooklyn and dress like witches. They keep mostly to themselves, making fun of the “uptown” girls (for looking like they’re from Orange County), who in turn make fun of them (for having lipstick on their teeth).
I first heard of Gallery Girls over a year ago, when a friend who works in Chelsea emailed me an ArtInfo blog post announcing that Bravo was to “Spotlight NYC’s ‘Hippest’ Gallerinas.” Scare quoting the qualifier and not the neologistic noun signaled both skepticism and nascent revulsion on the part of the blogger. “When the workday ends,” went the excerpted press release, “the cameras follow the girls to the city’s hot bars, clubs and art scene.” Important to note here is the pluralized “hot bars” and “clubs” paired with the singular, and implicitly monolithic, “art scene.”
I’ve worked in the “art scene” and have friends who still do. For months we’ve had fun doubting the tenability of Gallery Girl’s premise. Real gallery girls, who in life have less diminutive job descriptions—front-desk assistant or maybe even archivist—forfeit competitive salaries and easy commutes for proximity to rarified power and the opportunity to rise in the Chelsea ranks: to dealer or curator or art adviser. Their first jobs, while ornamental and occasionally degrading, are where they become fluent in International Art English and familiar with industry-specific dress and behavior. But what respectable gallerist would permit any employee—let alone an entry-level one—to participate on a reality show? Who would allow a team of cameramen to sully their pristine white cube?
It’s been almost a year and a half since that first mention of the series, and it is obvious watching tonight’s episode that quite a bit of conceptual compromising took place in the interim. Of the seven titular gallery girls, none work at Chelsea galleries, and four aren’t even paid. Gallery Girls, like Work of Art, forces you to imagine the motives of the people who have agreed to be filmed, and to squirm a little at their naiveté. All reality shows demand a sacrifice of dignity on the part of their participants, but the values of aspiring artists and gallerists seem to be especially inconstant with such crude methods of publicity.
Like other “docu-series,” the producers of Gallery Girls have sought out a subculture, filmed an ersatz version of it, and thus reinforced (while reinventing) a cultural stereotype. The show does have moments that feel eerily accurate, but they have nothing to do with the art world: the way the girls size up one another’s boyfriends, Angela’s date that ends as a nondate when the guy doesn’t have cash, Kerri dragging a mattress up a flight of stairs with her mother who's driven in especially to help her move.
So far Gallery Girls has failed to penetrate the New York art world, but it’s doing a fantastic job at showcasing the lives of young women who have the ambition to make it in New York but lack the guile to ascend off-screen. The inaccuracies of Gallery Girls might appear glaring to those in the know, but to everyone else they will seem negligible. With its symmetrical faces, schadenfreude, and establishing shots of Manhattan, the show does manage to deliver pleasure, if not an authentic portrait of the world it ostensibly sets out to document. Next week, according to a teaser, Chantal will tell Claudia that she needs “to like get off the Adderall or something,” and I, for one, will be watching.