gallery assistants – are they exploited?

2 September 2010 § 2 Comments

Andy Freeberg - Pace Wildenstein

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Courtesy of the Leg of Lamb blog my attention was drawn to an interesting set of pictures by American photographer Andy Freeberg. Entitled Sentry: Gallery desks in Chelsea they illustrate a series of attendants desks in New York Galleries. Hilariously just the very tops of the actual assistants heads are visible behind these oversize monstrosities. 

Almost identical in size, form and colour (white of course!) the images beautifully point out the total lack of creative imagination shown by the modern white cube galleries. Are these the very institutions that purport to demonstrate their artistic and creative credentials with the latest in cutting edge contemporary art; our arbiters of artistic taste; the places that select the best so that we don’t  have to? 


Any Freeberg - Sonnabend

In reality these are – largely – highly cautious and conservative institutions that take no risks and present art that other galleries have developed and established. Taste established and market created the ‘big business’ of these highly commercial spaces decides where the money lies and ‘scoops up’ the best. Sanitised, polished and beautifully presented it is packaged up for the wealthy to admire, and hopefully purchase at a nicely inflated price. 

All exaggerated of course, but largely true. If there is any lesson for a collector here it would be to try to avoid the larger galleries for investment purchases. Prices here are as high as they ever get. Search the smaller galleries to try and catch the best before they move onward and upward, buy from the artists direct or use a consultant (like us!). 

Andy Freeberg - Mitchell Innes & Nash

I digress. Back to the gallery assistant. We joke about what they do – paint their nails, check the i-phone and plan their evenings. They of course actually do these things – quite a lot – but also do a lot more, mostly menial and dull tasks. For the details I will simply point you towards a nice Frieze article from a couple of years back, but what is less well known is that they are, in most cases, not being paid. I don’t mean that they are just being paid a relatively small amount. I mean nothing. Not a penny. 

In a system of ‘internships’ the galleries take advantage of the excess of art-oriented courses in London and New York and offer three to six month placements where, ostensibly, these students/graduates are placed to ‘learn the trade’. In reality they usually spend tedious and long hours compiling databases, checking lists and stuffing envelopes. I call it shameless exploitation. The wealthy galleries should be ashamed. Can they not together create a system whereby there is a widely agreed minimum daily rate – not a lot, perhaps just £30-40 a day? No, of course they will not. Another reason to avoid the big galleries perhaps?

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