“Six Days in the Life of a Gallery”
Six Days in the Life of a Gallery
Mike, Head of Communications (SA), Curatorial Office – Mondays at the office, sweet respite. Industry-wide galleries aren’t open to the public today, which means we run on a skeleton staff. Don’t get me wrong, I have great fondness for my colleagues. It’s not them to whom respite is owed. The rush of relief comes from not scoping that black Porsche SUV parked in the space marked ‘director’. Not that it’s ever there when I arrive at work, but knowing it’s unlikely to turn up for the duration of office hours, well, it’s as close to solace as we get around here.
Am I sounding a tad dramatic? Call it an occupational hazard, but the fact remains, this place is a circus. I don’t come from an arts background, I just sort of, fell into it. That’s what you get for pursuing a career in a dying field with barely any budget left for hard news, let alone a culture beat. So, I took the job when it came my way. A couple years down the line and while my reference point remains limited, I know this ain’t the only Boswell and Wilkie joint in town. But it is the one with the most unhinged ringleader.
Today is actually a bit busier than usual. We have a new show opening on Saturday, so the install team is here painting the walls and I’ve got to get word out to all and sundry about the exhibition. ‘In this new body of work, the artist questions his place in society, asking the viewer: how do I, as a white man, occupy space?’ It’s having to write those sorts of sentences that give me the distinct sense, I’m less a writer, more monkey-with-a-miniature-cymbal.
I’m about half-way through sending out my Targeted Mails to Press when a WhatsApp comes through. ‘We must add Vusi to the talk on Saturday. Pls arrange.’ And just like that, without even being physically present, the Dragon of Inanda, has travelled through 4G to remind me that ‘agency’ in this place is an old French word for ‘do whatever the hell I tell you to do’.
Vusi came into the gallery for the first-time last week. I’d never seen him before and so was surprised when I was told by our fearless leader in her nasal-inflected tone of voice, ‘You must meet Vusi, Mike. He’s got thousands of followers. We have to put him on one of our talks, he’s going to bring new people here.’ I dutifully take Vusi, in his pressed shirt and tie, to our office to share information on our artists, while he shows me the size of his Twitter audience. ‘@WiseVusi – 76.8K Followers’. I tell him that’s impressive and he suggests in my free time I watch some of his interviews. I don’t.
A week later, and I’m being told to add Vusi to Saturday’s panel conversation. This, despite the fact the talk has already been advertised, and stacked with too many opinionated speakers. It’s lunchtime so I choose not to take the bait, leaving the message unread to plead ignorance should it come down to a follow-up phone call.
Lunch is my time to enjoy some sunshine, eating last night’s leftovers as I perch beside a wooden figure emerging from a plinth in what is loftily referred to as the gallery’s ‘sculpture garden’. The only other person who usually joins is Nomsa, who opts for lying on a piece of cardboard some distance away to look at her phone. More recently Tybalt, our new barista, has been wandering this way for smoke breaks of the elevated variety. It’s my want to join him, but I usually resist.
I pass by the guys on the way back in. Themba, or ‘Dr Art’ as he calls himself on account of the white lab coat he wears, stands perched on a ladder recoating the walls in white. He’s joined by John, more advanced in age and waistline, who opts for painting at ground level. ‘Heita Mike, you good?’ I tell John I am, although that’s not the entire truth, so I add, ‘At least today, I am.’ He laughs, and winks knowingly. We are, for the moment, at peace.
Alexandra, Director of Business Development, Sales Office – Listen doll, you would think Mondays off is a good deal, but when you work Saturdays, and Sunday is still Sunday for your clients, Tuesday is still Tuesday. Praise Hashem I at least have the first few hours of the day to catch up on mails before ‘Gog and Magog’ saunters in wearing some gauche Gucci number and her hideous Louis Vuitton takkies. And today is our weekly staff meeting, which means she definitely won’t be in before 11.30. Thank fuck.
It might sound impressive, Director of Business Development, but at the end of the day it’s still sales. That’s what I do. It used to be ‘Sales Associate’, but then I tried to leave. Twice. So, what does the doll do? She ‘promotes’ me. You might think, nachas. But when the prize is a blue ribbon instead of a salary bump, it feels a bit like winning a race no one else was running.
I wasn’t the only one to receive the big D promotion — about a third of the senior staff now walk around here like they own the place. But here’s the thing, they don’t. It’s like some sly corporate spin Gog learnt at one of those bloody YPO sessions where global executives get together to swap tricks of the trade. ‘Want to placate exploited staff by making them feel like they’re EXCO without giving them equity? Here’s how.’
I know what you’re going to say. It’s like my mother, every other week. So why are you still there? Well, not for my health, babes. But I like things and while I wait for something else to come along this is the best I’ve got. And it’s not all bad.
Queen Tendai, my beloved work wife, awaits as I step into the office. ‘Lexi, darling, j’adore le lewk.’ This is a typical hello from Queenie, earnest as it is welcome. Chats with the doll can easily swallow up an hour but I’ve got emails to send before our 11.30 interrogation. Tends understands and we both get down to it.
What exactly is it? The simple answer, selling art. Sometimes, at least, especially when we get to attend the international fairs. But around here, it’s more like looking after my niece’s bowel movements. Only instead of a baby, it’s some rich oke from Sandton whose nappies are gratuitous compliments I gently apply to make him forget about the shit he’s covered in.
I start looking through what I’ve got to punt this week and oy, what a shitshow. It was much easier when David was just taking photos of decrepit buildings. Now he’s ‘woke’ and I kind of wish he’d go back to sleep because in the clear light of day I’m sorry to say, it’s kak. I ask Queenie their thoughts. ‘It’s giving middle aged crisis, but instead of a motorbike it’s a paint brush.’ If only it was that easy describing this work to someone you’re trying to convince it’s worth half a bar to. Let’s see if getting yelled at for the next hour helps the motivation.
Madame loves a good entrance so we’re always left waiting for her arrival. Our second-in-command Levi tries to get things kicked off in the meantime. He’s an accountant who appreciates art like I do Rugby — I’m looking at the player’s butts and he’s checking out the work’s price tags. Mid-way through Levi’s spiel on making sure we’re all using the inventory system, she arrives.
Levi hesitates, then continues talking about our system’s backend which segues well into Doll’s opening chirp, ‘You guys really need to get your arses into gear.’ This sets the tone for the rest of the meeting, which leaves us all feeling motivated in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way. My job for the week is at least clear: get our ‘triple A list clients’ to Thursday’s preview.
Alice, Artist Liaison, Gallery Floor – I saw my first exhibition at age nine, Henri Matisse and Irma Stern at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The vivid colours, transmuted figures — I was in awe. I knew then I was destined for the arts. For a while I thought I’d be a creator, but experience revealed that my talents lay elsewhere. So, WITS undergrad then to my parent’s chagrin, a few expensive years at Goldsmiths in London and I had the piece of paper that said I, Alice Turnbull, was a Curator.
It’s a good job I went to all that effort, I’m thinking, as I sit waiting for David to arrive and tell me how he wants his puerile paintings hung. I browse LinkedIn while I wait, noticing someone from my high school is now a CEO. Maybe I should accept the offer to become a Director here, at least then I could also show off my career advancement. But that would mean more years of passive aggressive email exchanges with Mary, David’s studio manager, asking after the location of random edition numbers and the latest sales figures. Makes it a bitter pill to swallow when in the same breath you’ve got to help put on a show about white male privilege.
Just as I prepare to issue a job alert for ‘design jobs in Johannesburg’ David saunters in, bedecked in his usual paint-splattered blue workers overalls, to, you know, show he’s a man of the people. I offer him a drink, which he declines, instead inquiring after any collector interest. Having managed expectations while still offering a glimmer of hope, I try pivot us toward the pressing matter, acutely aware of the short window we have to get everything on the walls before the boss starts carting in her clients.
‘So, you ready to hang the show then?’
Some artists leave this part up to me, and I deftly go about it. Others take a more hands-on approach, which is fine when it’s accompanied by conviction. But who needs that when you can have insecurity masquerading as discernment.
‘I think we need to re-look at how the works are in conversation with each other,’ he tells me.
I nod, because right now language is not my ally. ‘I’m talking to my father, but I’m also talking to the original Dutch settlers. At the same time, it’s about how I interrogate my own skin and the artificial construction of race.’ Uh-huh, is all I’m about able to muster at this point. This is well-trodden ground, extensively covered in a lengthy appendix to the exhibition statement. And I already tried fighting that battle, gently insisting that a fictional 10-page interview with the artist’s deceased father exploring the themes of the show might come across as a bit didactic. So, at this point I just go along with it, getting poor Themba and John to move the cumbersome canvases around on the floor for two hours until David feels coddled enough. By the grace of Goya, David leaves, satisfied that his work here is done. Ironic, considering the actual amount of labour still required to get the gallery fit for receiving visitors but at least now we can just get on with it. The added blessing of our ever-absent matriarch helps, knowing I won’t have the spirit level knocked out of my hands for the rest of the afternoon.
As the final work goes up, she walks in. To my relief, a balding man and his bejewelled wife are in tow, which means I get away with a ‘This is Alice, the curator of the show’ introduction from her, accompanied by a rather unsettling fake smile. I think I prefer the usual grimace and complaints of how shit everything is. But at least in this instance, I’m able to escape to my desk to issue that LinkedIn alert.
Alexandra, Director of Business Development, Kitchen – If one more fucking lech client comments on my dress instead of the art on the wall I’m done. It’s hard enough having to be here after hours while I can literally hear people my age enjoying their lives across the road at the bar. Well at least I’m getting paid overtime, right? No chance, babes. Around here, overtime is called VIP preview and it’s where we need to put in the work to meet our targets.
Targets. You know, benchmarks we need to reach to show we’re doing our job well. Money in the bank. Does it come with commission? Sure, there are incentives with a set-up not too unlike a pyramid scheme, with just enough pay-out not to seem like out-and-out exploitation. The joke is they only introduced these ‘bonus hurdles’ quite recently. Levi made it seem like generosity instead of something that should have been in place all along. So, we work our arses off to get back a small fraction of what we earn for this place, and avoid the wrath of Magog.
I wonder how long I can stay in this kitchen before they notice I’m not on the schmooze train? It might seem glamorous from the outside, but when champagne is the only thing keeping this frigid smile on your face in front of the vultures, the whole thing starts to feel a lot like the dop system. It doesn’t help that we’re punting utter tripe this evening. The gig is a lot easier when I can actually believe the spiel, I’m dishing out to bored rich folk. But when it’s a show like this, I’ve got to rely on other tactics.
‘Get your tits out, girls’. That was the instruction we received earlier this evening from our Gucci Doll, the blessed Patron Saint of Kugels. She might not know that much about the art itself, but she knows what work sells and how to push it when it doesn’t. I’m not revealing some big secret here when I say that sex is almost as important as the price tag when it comes to convincing an overweight oke wearing a Rolez to part with his precious money. It’s part of the game in this industry and is why most people in a job like mine are either young women, or ageing queens. It takes its toll and there’s only so long you can indulge in promises to ‘meet up for a drink, if you buy this piece’ before the grease starts to get on you a bit.
Making a beeline for the drinks counter, I see Queenie in bants with one of the nicer collectors. Maybe I can join their conversation after I grab another flute. That’s called optimism as Madame catches my eyes, widening hers with custom aggression while nodding in the direction of Mr Adams, one of the more licentious clients who frequents these events. Maybe if I get him to buy the work he’s pretending to admire, I can get out of here early. It’s enough motivation to make my approach.
Back at university I did some promo work from time to time. I’d go to bars and convince drunkards to buy a shot. It helped pay the bills and only cost me my dignity for an evening. This feels pretty similar as Mr Adams sizes me up.
‘And if I decided to buy this one, would you join me for a drink sometime?’ The old promo tactics kick in and I tell the schvitzing geezer, ‘Of course darling’. While I have no real intention of honouring this commitment, it’s all about closing. Get paid then deal with the consequences. The only difference in this case is that the exchange involves more than a R50 note, so I know this dance is far from over. But at least the old perv’s only got the number to my burner phone, a trick I learned at least three inappropriate clients ago.
Mike, Head of Communications (SA), Boardroom – It’s never good when we’re all called in this early, and on a Friday, for a meeting. I’m not client-facing so I don’t know how last night went — judging by the panicked stares of the sales team, I would say below par.
The boss walks in mid-call wearing her pyjamas. They’re not really pyjamas but we all call them that on account of the French bulldog motif that adorns the silky jumpsuit. But it’s Gucci, so I guess that makes it Fashion? Either way, it’s a bad sign: the bulldogs come out when she’s in a mood. Not to mention the fact that she’s missing her weekly blow-dry appointment to be here. We prepare for the worst.
There is something uniquely disquieting about the way her facial expression can turn on a dime. The plastered smile promptly vacates her face the moment the call ends, replaced with a grimace that proves being rich does not guarantee happiness.
‘Howsit. How are you guys?’ It’s a trap, this feigned politeness. An opening gambit meant to draw out an unwitting volunteer to receive the Dragon’s scorn. One of the younger sales associates, naive in her optimism, takes the bait, mentioning how ‘fun’ last night was and the great clients she met. ‘Do I look like I’m paying you to have fun?’ There it is, I think watching the newbie’s head drop, the end of innocence.
There’s a rhythm to these sessions of ours that you learn to endure over time. One, sometimes two opening questions, then, depending on various factors beyond my comprehension, a monologue that can last up to a quarter of an hour. Today is a mild diatribe, clocking in at around seven minutes, and only peppered with the word ‘cunt’ twice.
It’s the usual story. We need to ‘jack up our acts’ or face the threat of retrenchment. No one chooses to argue; the insults being more rhetorical than anything else. With the steam mostly blown, we prepare to get back to said acts we need to jack. I breathe a pre-emptive sigh of relief as the boss, perhaps not quite satisfied with today’s outburst, asks to no one in particular: ‘So Vusi is confirmed for the talk tomorrow, hey?’
Some staff are already half out the door. I consider following suit, feigning ignorance. Then I hear my name mentioned and know it’s tickets. Michael, is this true?’ I take a deep breath and remember what my therapist suggested when it comes to handling narcissists. She calls it the ‘Shit Sandwich’: two compliments buffering the unfortunate smelling truth.
‘So, Vusi is really fantastic and a great find for the gallery,’ I proffer, hoping it smooths the landing of my excuse. ‘But you know at such late notice, with the conversation already advertised and a full host of speakers…’ Before I can finish the thought, the Dragon begins her huff. The fire is on its way. ‘We’ll definitely use him on the next panel…’ I barely manage to squeeze out before the terror reigns down.
Thoroughly admonished, I take my leave. The few members of the team who stuck around to witness me absorb the full weight of her furore offer a knowing nod for I am today’s blood tribute. It’s a minor consolation, this solidarity, like a bunch of school kids united by teenage angst. Only we’re fucking adults and this is supposedly a place of work.
The rest of the day is spent stewing at my desk. It’s that usual feeling of apathy mixed in with the resentment that creeps in when it’s my turn to receive the sting. It’s certainly not work that I’m doing so instead I try to find out more about this random Vusi guy and why it’s suddenly so important he appears on our programme.
A quick google search and I have my answer. One of the first results to come up is a clip from an eNCA show called Let’s Have it Out. The topic is: ‘Is Israel an Apartheid State?’ I don’t need to watch it to know what side of the debate the boss’ new wünderkind falls on.
Alice, Artist Liaison, Reception/Bookstore/Coffee Shop – After enough of these things it’s remarkable how adept you can get at drifting into a state of semi-cognitive dissonance. I call it Discourse ASMR. Representation, corpus, ontological — little triggers that reassure my brain, ‘take a load off and settle into the rhythm of speech that is a panel of artists discussing their practice’.
The trick is to latch onto one or two phrases you can reformulate into a question at the end. There’s not a bad turnout today though so I may be spared from flogging the dead horse once the panellists have had their say. With enough people in the crowd there’s usually a couple keen-eared listeners ready to share their most pressing thoughts when given the chance: an arts student filled with idealism and the hope of impressing the audience with their firm grasp of the material; an older visitor, lonely, and eager for the opportunity to briefly hold everyone’s attention. The rest are either here for the free coffee, or familial duty.
It’s not always dull. I’ve attended talks that have been nothing short of illuminating. Given the right set of speakers and sharp moderator, a conversation can go in some interesting directions. Despite my waning faith in the power of art, I still believe the ideas contained within the work have value. But I suspect something goes wrong once it all passes through the digestive tract of the Market. There’s an ulterior motive at play, even if no one is willing to acknowledge it. The Spectre of Sales looms large, clouding motives and judgements.
David has been going on about discovering his new process for five minutes now. I can see the other artist is starting to itch. The moderator can sense it too, but lacks the experience and arrogance of age to intervene. I’m momentarily brought out of my reverie as the tension builds. The other artist, a fellow white man ready to share his family story, is visibly perturbed. We’re all spared further awkwardness courtesy of Tybalt who chooses this moment to grind some coffee beans. David relents, bowing to the loud mechanical whir as some divine sign that he has had his say, or whatever rationale appeases his ego.
My relief at this turn of events is why I know I need to get the fuck out of this place. I’ve become too cynical, lost my ability to separate the baby from the bathwater, the passion from the posturing. I still love a lot of the art, and even some of the creators that make it, but having it force-fed through this machine is not pretty to watch. Is this what everyone feels working at a gallery? Or is it the fact that I know too much about who’s selling this work and the margins they’re making at the expense of our underpaid labour?
Talking of which, the big boss slips in right as the conversation is wrapping up. Her timing is impeccable as she eyes the room, locating which client to engage when the crowd disperses. Today is a chance to make up for Thursday’s poor showing and who knows, after hearing from David for the past half hour, maybe a couple suckers were hooked. Then it’s off to the artist lunch at her favourite nearby Italian restaurant.
Today I’m spared that fate as there’s not enough staff on duty to man the fort. Not boarding the shmooze train is a minor consolation for having to spend the next several hours trapped here. That, and the laughter that invariably follows when the matriarch exits the building and we’re left with each other’s company — and the reserve supply of wine that’s always on hand.
Hailing from Johannesburg, Robin Scher holds a masters in International Relations from the University of Cape Town and journalism, specialising in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, from NYU. Robin earns his living as a specialist writer at Razor PR, and publishes his and others’ creative works through Phasmid Press (@phasmid_press).