BY Isobel Harbison in Opinion | 20 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Belittled Women

What does the term ‘gallerina’ symbolize?

BY Isobel Harbison in Opinion | 20 JUN 13

Andy Freeberg, Mitchell Innes & Nash, 2006, from the series ‘Sentry’. Courtesy: the artist and Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

One recent afternoon, a gallerist visiting from the US walked into the office of an established London gallery, openly accessible from the exhibition space. ‘Hello girls,’ he said in greeting to the two young women who were working at adjacent desks. The visitor (male, white, middle-aged) assumed that these ‘girls’ (female, white, seemingly in their 20s) were not gallerists, but rather gallerinas. To distinguish between the terms, both of which are commonly used, though have yet to enter the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘gallerist’ signifies a director of a commercial gallery while ‘gallerina’ denotes an administrative employee at a commercial gallery. ‘Gallerina’, unlike ‘gallerist’, is gendered, referring specifically to a junior female employee. A play on ‘ballerina’, the word evokes the svelte posture and favourable appointment of the young women employed in this front-of-house position; it implies a particular appearance as much as any particular professional role.

One of the two women mentioned above, who is neither a gallerina nor even a girl, did what many of us would do in this position: she silently brushed aside the visitor’s clumsy informality and introduced herself as the gallery’s new director. This story isn’t unusual and neither is misguided over-familiarity in the workplace; it’s certainly not a complaint specific to young professional females in the contemporary art world, nor is being the subject of mistaken identity specific to women. But the point here isn’t accountability so much as slang terminology and the conditions or behaviour it produces. How has the term ‘gallerina’ come into being, what does it symbolize and who does this symbolic figure ultimately serve? Just how has it become part of common parlance in a cultural sector so well populated by intelligent women at all levels of seniority, some of whom themselves graduated from the lower rungs of commercial galleries? And how does its casual usage generate a soft (yet serious) form of dismissal?

In a 2008 article titled ‘Gatekeepers to the Art World?’, published in The New York Times, Jan Hoffman noted that the term ‘gallerina’ was popularized by Danielle Ganek’s debut novel Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him (2007). Set in the New York art world, it is the story of an aspiring young artist, Mia McMurray, whose gallery assistant job provides her access to an array of wealthy collectors and high-profile artists, one of whom immortalizes her as the beautiful ‘Lulu’ in a large and highly sought-after painting. This is how Mia characterizes the role of gallerinas: ‘We’re considered a loathsome breed. Yes, yes, stock characters in miniature art-world dramas, we’re pretentious creatures in intellectualfashion and high heels, dripping with attitude and sarcasm, rolling our eyes at visitors requesting something as mundane as the price list.’ (Asking for the price list was something that Ganek, herself an avid collector, had presumably experienced from the other side of the desk.) In her piece for The New York Times, Hoffman notes that, ‘gallerinas tend to be driven, ambitious and’ – here she reaches for a telling adjective – ‘hilariously overqualified’ (my italics). Newly paranoid, I want to ask Hoffman what’s so funny about qualifications?

Danek’s character is not alone. Over the last decade, the gallerina has provided a disproportionate number of protagonists in mainstream television programmes, from Charlotte York in early episodes of Sex and the City (1998–2004) and Marnie Michaels in Girls (2012–ongoing) to, less auspiciously, the whole cast of the reality series Gallery Girls (2012–ongoing). The Bravo network pitches the latter as following ‘the lives of seven dynamic and ambitious young women in New York City who tackle the cut-throat environment of the art world while vying for their dream jobs’, ramping up the characters’ competitive natures in a seriously unfavourable light. Senior executives have often been the butt of jokes in sitcoms set in the workplace, from the creepy boss in The Office (2001–03) to the ambitious female politicians of Veep (2012–ongoing) and public servants of Parks and Recreation (2009–ongoing). So what to make of the rise of this new comic type: the aspiring gallerina?

In an article published last summer on Flavorwire, titled ‘A Brief Survey of Gallerinas in Pop Culture’, Heba Hasan noted that: ‘The gallery girl plays an important function in the realm of female-geared media, as a sort of counterbalance to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; while both are creative, the Gallerina is as focused and ambitious as the MPDG is whimsical and carefree.’ To clarify, the comedy potential of a gallerina does not lie solely in her focus, drive and qualifications but in how she wants to apply them competitively within a creative industry. Her ambition simmers oh-so-dangerously beneath the sub-lustrous surface; this attractive young woman resembles an electric current about to short circuit. Cue comedy gold.

Could this trope be applied to a driven, (over-?) qualified young man behind a gallery desk? If we assume ‘gallerina’ is a derivation of ballerina, then we could convert it into its masculine declension, ‘gallerino’. Not quite as catchy but then it’s never used, despite the fact that the gallerino is everywhere: sitting beside the gallerina as you walk in; greeting you with the same levels of warmth or apathy depending on your gait and his humour; carrying with him the same volume of qualifications fuelled by the same velocity of ambition. I see him everywhere, just as I see her. He looks like she does, too: young and angular – pretty as Ganek’s fictional Lulu. The type is, in a sense, timeless: I recently encountered it in Édouard Manet’s 1879 portrait of his friend, the novelist, art critic and failed artist George Moore. Shown recently at the Royal Academy in London, the work depicts a precocious young man who is as well dressed and distinguished-looking as any contemporary gallerino; he’d feel at home in a white cube in Mayfair or Chelsea. Young beauty has always had a place in art galleries, sitting at the desk or depicted on the wall. But let’s be clear: this beauty is not gender specific.

So what’s the real function of the term ‘gallerina’? By way of comparison, a decade ago the revolting term ‘chav’ was slowly sinking its teeth into British society, used to described a stereotype popularized by comedies such as Little Britain (2003–06). ‘Chav’ generally denotes an uneducated, unqualified and uncultured man or woman — someone from the underclass rather than the ‘working class’, in as much as ‘chavs’ are rarely depicted as being employed. The insult was often used in the media and filtered into common parlance as a way of identification; its sneering utterances perpetuated class divisions and subjugated individuals positioned within a largely voiceless group. The phrase has since been logged by the oxford english dictionary as pejorative. While it is used less frequently today, its symbolic figure (the greedy, lazy, benefit-seeker) is still lamentably visible in British politics, evoked to justify all manner of public spending and benefit cuts, disguising an economic system skewed towards those already at its upper percentiles.

While the seemingly innocuous term ‘gallerina’ circulates in casual conversations in the art world and beyond, it is worth thinking through its denigrating implications, unused declensions and ultimately divisive action. What actually happens to a young woman’s professional efforts every time it’s spoken? If gender discrimination in the workplace is officially so taboo, then how is it that the term remains acceptable for a sub-group that is both gendered and junior? From which upper limits is this position really funny? Isn’t it time to say goodbye to ‘Hello girls’?

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.