After graduating art school, I would have never thought that my outlook on art would shatter so quickly from working at a gallery. I was raised to believe that intellectual aptitude was essential for one’s practice and that those who purchased my work would be doing it out of integrity and hones interest. But after working several art fairs, I’ve come to realize just how shallow the art world can be. Don’t believe me? Here are my confessions.
A Fair Of Phonies
Earlier this month, I went to one of the many fairs I’ve had to attend this year: Frieze in New York. I was there, sitting day after day in a booth, witnessing the underpinnings of a culture tainted by greed. You see, sitting in a booth at an art fair is the least glamorous part of the gallery world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice wearing the best dress you have with €60 Chanel lipstick—but you don’t know what a real hangover is until you spend it in a white cube for 8 hours! Of course I went out and partied the night before; I was in New York and thought I had the right to get a little shitty.
Under the heated and pallid lights of the fair, however, I had a change of heart. The owners were lucky: they had the opportunity to just walk around the fair, free to mingle and enjoy the free coffee. I and the rest of the gallery assistants, however, were left back in the booths nursing headaches and holding back vomit in-between attempts at selling art to hedge funders. One of the boys—another gallery assistant from Berlin—raced to the bathroom for a moment but vainly started to puke in a garbage can next to the entrance. Yet no one cared. We were invisible to anyone making more than seven figures a year. The collectors were there with their Gucci wallets and trophy wives showing off to their friends what artwork they had bought the previous day. I must’ve missed the lesson in school when this part of the art world was covered.
“Every artist here has 5 year careers,” a dealer told me, “These galleries are plucking kids straight out of art school and forcing work out of them like a Chinese labor camp. The next thing you know: they’re not hot anymore. They reach the age of thirty and no one wants to work with them. This is why grad school got invented: to give ‘has-beens’ a thing to do.”
One collector was specifically kind to me. He was tall, French, and spoke with a vocabulary that challenged even the most intelligent native English speaker. He was interested in one artist we were exhibiting: a very famous, very hot and very young photographer. He purchased one on opening day (a measly $30,000 for a framed photo). He came back periodically with other collectors to show them the piece he had purchased and how great this artist was. You would think he was an expert about the artist’s work by the end of the fair. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong.
“And what material did he use to paint this?” he asked me while I presented the artist’s portfolio on our gallery’s iPad to him and his friend. I stared at him blankly with my mouth wide open, absolutely shocked that he thought this was a painting. If you were to invest the equivalent of the average American-student loan debt on a work of art, wouldn’t you like to know what medium it’s in? “It’s…it’s a photograph, sir.” Yet he didn’t even blink an eye and continued bragging about the work. For people like him, you see, it isn’t about what it is as much as who is it by. Sad to say that in half a decade this work might not even be worth half as much as it is now.
A Smuggler’s Life
As the fair came to a close, I was informed by my boss (who had already flown home) that I had to bring something extra with me from the States. It wasn’t American quality medicine or a shirt he’d forgotten at in his hotel: it was artwork. You see, Germany is very strict with shipping and often overcharges galleries for receiving art through customs. My mission was simple: go to the artist’s studio, retrieve three unstretched paintings, stuff them in my luggage and get home safe and sound. Simple enough, no?
I found myself in the heart of hipster paradise: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, in a large basement warehouse, I met with the artist who gave me her work (which individually sell for more than a Ferrari) and told me to plainly wrap it in a black plastic bag and shove it in my suitcase. I did just that. To be honest, I’ve never been more tempted to steal anything in my life. Just think: I could stretch these myself, sell them and pay off all my student loans in one hour. Maybe it’s just the Midwest girl in me but I felt obliged to my superiors and followed my orders.
After the grueling 8-hour flight back to Europe, I collected my bags and walked towards the exit. A tall, brutish, German customs officer stopped me and requested to go through my bags. I panicked. Was I supposed to declare these as art? Found items, perhaps? What if he knew whose works these were and I would have to pay for their clearance? I was visibly nervous: my legs were shaking and my palms were so sweaty that I could barely grip the zipper on my luggage. He scavenged through my suitcase, found the plastic bag, unwrapped it and scrutinized its contents.
“Is this art?” he asked sternly.
“Yes,” I sheepishly replied.
“Mine,” I blushed, hoping that he would assume a 23-year-old girl would paint such aggressive abstract works that looked as if tubes of paint had exploded on the canvas.
“Alles gut,” he responded and shoved the pricey works back into place. I quickly gathered my things and, like a cat burglar in high heels, ran to catch a cab to make my grand escape.
I went to art school with the idea that one day I would curate shows and write intellectually stimulating periodicals for ArtForum—I never thought that I would have to add ‘art smuggling’ to my repertoire of experience. Things have died down lately at the gallery as we prepare to go to Switzerland for Art Basel in June. If anything proves to be as eventful as Frieze New York, I’m sure I’ll have my hands (and baggage) quite full. In the meanwhile, next time you visit a gallery and you see that lonely girl behind the desk typing away on a computer, be aware that she is one of thousands of workers that sometimes hold the best kept secrets of the art world.
Article by Anonymous Gallery Girl