Front Desk Dilemma: A Response to Jerry Saltz, Part 1

Dear Jerry,

I was about to send you an email concerning Q2 on your post today, but my length was rejected by the New Yorkmag format, so I’m posting here instead.  Moreover, this is really addressed to the general public, and all who visit art galleries, so I do hope those people get to see it.

Gosh this issue of ‘front desk behavior’ comes up so often…i I find myself answering it all the time:  I teach a class called ‘Gallery Principles’ in the Graduate School at FIT (in which I cover the history, logistics and ethics of the commercial art world in NYC).  This is the most recurrent question from students at the outset of the semester.  I’ve thus think about it again & again, and have something to add to your reply.

Your answer comes very close to the truth, but falls a little short.  I say this from my direct experience – having done it myself, supervised others, and consulted to galleries.  Most of what you write is spot on, with a glaring exception:

You missed the mark with the last line:  “They’re probably as concerned about how they’re perceived as you are.”  This isn’t really true, not because the opposite is true (that they aren’t concerned), but because it is actually something one doesn’t really think about.  When working as a gallery assistant (or Director, who are sometimes also positioned upfront), your primary job purpose is not ever positioned as interfacing with the public.  Moreover, most of the people in these positions do not have the primary personal goal of being on display or being otherwise ‘consumed’ by the public.  When up there, it actually feels quite incidental.  (S)he is not really aware of how much the public takes in their comportment, personality, looks etc into effect when rendering their own experience.  The primary purpose is to do your administrative or sales work, which you, Jerry, lay out (somewhat curmudgeonly, but okay) in your post.

The analogy, therefore, is NOT with the public’s view, but actually within your answer 1:  you found it almost ‘creepy’ that someone would be noticing behaviors or habits that you considered personal, but have been construed as public.  Your readers may have a justification for making your art trips a topic of discussion:  your work is offered up for public consumption, and therefore human curiosity will incline them to see all that you do as public behavior, as long as it takes place within the [physical] public space in which you participate.

This is what it is like when you are on front desk duty.  You (consciously or not) believe that the audience is there for the final event (in our case the art, in your case the article)…so it indeed comes as a surprise (though perhaps it should not) when you are walking down the street and a stranger approaches you and comments on your new haircut, sweater, or what you ate for lunch two days ago…

As explored in this article that ran in the New York Times a couple of years ago, most of the people (often women) who hold these positions enter them as necessary stepping stones for a career in the arts.  They are often well-educated, smart, and ambitious.  It therefore causes blunt trauma to the head when someone visitor makes a comment such as “You are such a good gallery girl’ (yes, that is a verbatim quote)…and this injury, sorry to say, compounds over time so that your secondary job duty of being the public face of the gallery is one that you begrudge, and one that makes you want to not talk to anybody ever.

As for the Owners or Directors, they of course acknowledge the fact that the ‘front desk’ person leaves a perception with the public, and they hire accordingly.  Some owners/ directors have an active stance about how the employee should behave, while others do not.  In either case, however, specific instruction is rarely given and always with diminished importance relative to the rest of the work.  For example, one’s boss might provide copious and detailed instructions about how to fill out loan forms or answer the phones, etc…but dealing with the public is often just addressed with one or two big dos or don’ts (DO be friendly and engaging with the public; DON’T be friendly and engage with the public), if at all.  No one really tells you EXACTLY how to deal with the unwanted sexual attention (even when it becomes aggressive), no one tells you specifically what to say to people when they ask you to refer them to a gallery that shows ‘real’ art, like paintings of ‘fishes or landscapes’ (again, another direct quote, as told to me recently by a friend on front desk duty)…as these things are not really of primary importance to the owner/ directors.

Then there is also what I like call ‘Saturday Syndrome’:  the experience that, no matter how many years it goes on, it forever sucks to be working Tuesday – Saturday.  This is especially true in the earliest points of your career – the times when you are most likely to be on front desk duty – when you have little leverage in your own days off.  I cannot tell you how many important birthdays, weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs whatever, I missed out on in my 20s.  So while your family or friends are together celebrating, you are stuck explaining to the 200th person that day that there are no public restroom facilities in your gallery.

Finally, Jerry, your point about flirting is so important that it should actually be stressed.  Public, you may find it cute, harmless, fun to flirt with the lovely young thing positioned at the entrance of a gallery.  I can assure that this is almost never the case.  When I was a gallery director at Gorney Bravin + Lee in Chelsea – which had large glass windows displaying both me & the gallery assistant – I actually locked myself into the gallery not once but TWICE in order to protect myself from lunatics who thought that, for whatever reason, I might enjoy spending time with them if they waited for 2 hours on the street outside the gallery until it was closing time & everyone else left. We don’t actually know which strangers are the good ones and which are the bad…so we develop an armor that may appear to the public as hostility but may really be a tactic to avoid be stalked, raped or harassed.

The funny/ sad thing is that when we embark on these jobs, nearly every person I’ve ever met (some exceptions, but vast majority) swear that when they get their first, coveted, $24,000-a-year- and-days-off-only-in-August job, that they are going to be different.  We do love art, are endlessly interested in it, and in fact would love to have people to express our knowledge and opinions to (and until we move further up in our career, few other people really care that much about our opinions).  So we think this might be a good opportunity to change the public’s perception of the gallery space while also participating in a wider dialogue.  And then…too many rotten apples spoil the orchard, and the cycle perpetuates.

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