Jerry Saltz: In Praise of Art-Gallery Attendants

Photo: HBO

I have a little bone to pick with capable fellow art-writer Hannah Ghorashi and the marvelous ArtNews blog. Ghorashi (whom I've never met) writes a regular column called "Price Check." She goes to galleries and asks front-desk employees how much works of art cost, if they're sold, and for how much. This may not sound so interesting or unusual, but it serves to illustrate just how much the art world is governed by strange codes of exclusivity — galleries are open to anyone, of course, and even free (better than museums), but all of the business conducted there seems to transpire behind closed doors, in a vaguely secretive, conspiratorial fashion. (The whole thing creeps me out sometimes, too.) ArtNews says its column is in the service of the "truth in pricing" law, which states that all items sold in New York have to have "conspicuously displayed" price tags. As Ghorashi writes, galleries "don't always do this"; in fact, they can be downright cagey about pricing, possibly because, with discounts given to reflect client status, pricing does tend to shift a bit depending on who’s buying. The point of the column, she says, "is simply to ask about the price and see what happens."

Maybe it's because I love galleries, the good, the bad, and the very bad; or because I used to work in them (the great Phyllis Kind Gallery gave me my first job in New York), but there’s something in the columns that makes me uncomfortable. Surely there is some insight to be gained from examining the way artwork is priced, and even the ways in which those mechanisms (and the language used to describe them) differ from gallery to gallery. But there’s actually a lot less of that kind of exploration in these columns than there is finger-pointing and tittering superiority. The point is to shame defenseless employees for being awkwardly discreet, or indiscreet, about the things their bosses have instructed them to keep hush-hush about. Ghorashi's examples of all this include a gallery employee worrying, "You're not going to print that, though, are you?" She replies, “I smiled, showing teeth,” and answers, "Oh, yes I am." Twisting the knife, she adds that she saw "micro-expressions of horror flitting across his face." Another painful exchange: "Are there any available for sale?” The employee says, “Most of them aren’t.” She asks, “Which ones are?” The gallery assistant says, “Not very many.” Ghorashi opines that the two "continued like this for another moment, humorlessly." When one gallery person pleads, "I can’t. We really try to honor our clients’ privacy,” Ghorashi smirks, "Poor [gallery director's name redacted]."

And that’s the underlying problem: the way Ghorashi confuses the well-off gallery directors, with their revealing, standoffish policies about pricing, and their employees, who are just trying to hold down jobs. I've written before about the kind of hostility often directed at the people who work at the front desks of galleries. And while it’s true that they can often be cool to visitors, we need to keep a few things in mind. First of all, they are only behaving as their bosses want them to, sending messages on behalf of their employers, not out of their own snippiness. Second of all, they are paid almost nothing. Most of them are dirt-poor, living in dumps with other people, unable to do their laundry, paying off student loans, living on the edge, and working 40 hours a week. Many are artists themselves. Many have no insurance. Most are in these jobs to somehow have a life lived in art; they're not doing this for the money, they're in it for the love. Like you. And me.

Lastly, dealers are ultracontrolling types who expect impeccable work out of them. Think about how these people are on constant public view and subject to all manner of abuse. We've all seen it. (And maybe done it.) They're sneered and stared at, asked for restaurant recommendations, street directions, bathroom keys, suggestions of what else to see, and constantly pummeled with demands to know who bought this, how much it costs, what the artist thinks they're doing, and why the gallery would show such crap. The bigger the gallery, the worse it is. In all galleries, clueless artists come demanding that the dealer look at their work and then threatening the person behind the desk when they're told that the dealer doesn't consider submissions from people who wander in off the street. If the person behind the desk is a woman, it gets really bad; she's flirted with, hit on, sometimes followed out the door. This goes on all day, at the same time that he or she is trying to do all the things the dealer has tasked them to do. The pressure is intense. On top of all that, many of the best gallerists today were once those poor people behind desks, among them Gavin Brown, Michele Maccarone, Lisa Cooley, Rachel Uffner, Kathy Grayson, Risa Needleman, Carol Greene, Friedrich Petzel, Anton Kern, and countless others. #Respect.