A Martian, coming out of an alien-invasion movie: “Geez, they got everything wrong. My skin’s purple, not green, and I’d never have that many eyes. And what’s with those puny ray guns, anyway?”
That’s how I felt, screening the first episodes of Gallery Girls, the new “reality” show from Bravo that launches Aug. 13 (and the network’s “latest masterpiece,” according to a modest press release). I’ve spent years living on planet art-world, and I couldn’t see any trace of it in a program that’s supposed to be set there.
The show follows seven 20-somethings as they try to make their way on the New York scene. Chantal and Claudia have actually opened a commercial space. Most of the others–Kerri, Liz, Amy, and Maggie–are interns, while Angela does “art” photography, and models with flowers covering her most private parts.
Reality Check No. 1: Chantal and Claudia’s “commercial space” is actually a clothing store with ’80s-style paintings on the wall. That’s so low on the art-world totem pole, it’s hardly in the art world at all. There are plenty of smart young things in the city who do open ambitious art galleries–but maybe Bravo couldn’t get any of them to play ball.
This brings us to Reality Check No. 2: I said “smart young things”–which is what none of our protagonists show any signs of being. Your average intern at a major gallery has written an honors thesis on “Alterity and Othering in the Performative Self: 1963–1967.” Whereas our Kerri’s engagement with timeless aesthetic concerns extends to such statements as “I want to work with boutique hotels, but I don’t have the art background.”
A lot of the action around Liz (unbearable daughter of a major collector) and Maggie (the show’s official underdog) takes place in a gallery called Eli Klein Fine Art, on West Broadway in SoHo–precisely where the art world hasn’t been based for well over a decade. I have to admit that I’d never heard of Klein before Gallery Girls, so I checked out The New York Times, whose team of critics does close to blanket coverage of the gallery scene–and couldn’t find a single review of his shows. Maybe that’s why he was willing to expose himself, and his gallery, on cable TV.
New York’s high-end art market is like nothing else on the planet. A glimpse into its weird, alternate reality could be pretty compelling. You could give a sense of just how strange the art in it can get: How about hundreds of paintings of dots, each canvas selling for the cost of a house? Or an international art star whose big New York show consists of hacking a pig-roasting pit into his gallery’s concrete floor? You could catch the incredible crassness of some of the billionaires who spend their money on our culture’s most prestigious creations. Or try to convey the insane pecking order that governs who gets to buy the best works and who doesn’t. (It’s not just about flashing your billions. The top artists get to sell only to the most “serious” collectors, who will leave their works to the most prestigious museums.)
The fascinating thing about the art world is that the people in it, and the things they do, have almost nothing to do with the rest of American life. Whereas Bravo’s version of that world feels like it could take place in any strip mall.
Like other reality programs, this one has clearly been staged for the camera. You just wonder how, even with fakery and planning, it could end up so banal.