BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Unsung Heroes

The strange and wonderful world of gallery assistants

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 OCT 08

Andy Freeberg, Mitchell Innes and Nash (2007), from the 'Sentries' series

What exactly do gallery assistants do? Every gallery has one – or several – but they tend to be discreet about their activities. Over the years, I’ve been conducting my own research into this common breed, whose habitat is fixed but whose habits, apart from looking incredibly good at all times, are uncertain. Whenever I get an assistant on the phone, I pry for information about the task they’re currently undertaking. It’s either dull (‘I’m sticking labels on envelopes’) or bizarre (‘I’m killing mosquitoes’); very technical (‘I’m mixing silicone into paint so that it won’t dry’) or very scary (‘I’m trying to figure out if the ceiling can hold the weight of a sculpture’). Most of their jobs tend to be unique and extremely urgent. It’s dilettantism with deadlines.

Whatever assistants do, I could not live without them – and I don’t even own a gallery. During an exhibition, it’s the assistants who give me a tour, provide press images and even call me a cab. My favourite kind of assistant is the walking archive, the one who can remember what an artist said in June 1998 about an installation. Expert assistants know the line between promoting an artist and offering what might be described as custom-made information. Watch them at exhibition openings, if you can keep up with them. They run around without actually running (or sweating) and complete one secret mission after another to make sure the opening goes smoothly: serving drinks, introducing people to each other (and remembering everyone’s name), making sure the seating arrangement for the dinner party works and getting the guests to the after-parties in one piece.

During art fairs, the assistants live on the fair grounds, like jugglers performing in travelling circuses where all the equipment is for sale. Where a circus mixes the natural with the fantastic – think of the elephant’s pirouette – the art fair fuses banality with luxury, the lowest with the highest of the service industries: from getting take-out sandwiches for the gallerists to selling art works to billionaires. Alas, the take-out counter doesn’t celebrate each sandwich purchase by breaking open a bottle of bubbly. For artists, assistants can become therapists, caretakers, guides, house cleaners, tax advisors, drivers and procurers of last-minute pleasures. Working at all these events – from openings to fairs – implies weeks of overtime, but I have never met an assistant who gets paid by the hour. If you notice that the gallery has a shower, you might consider leaving the assistant a generous tip.

Whatever their pay, assistants are likely to remain unsung heroes. What goes on behind the scenes of a show is supposed to remain secret, although I’ve compiled a list on the sly. How about the building façade that had to be dismantled and rebuilt in one night to fit sculptures into a gallery on the fifth floor? Or the realm of activity related to small industries (securing 15 kilos of aluminium) and vintage electronics (getting replacement parts for a VHS player)? And let’s not forget the odd information they acquire: how much it costs to rent a giraffe for a day in London (£12,000), the best courier to use for shipping things to Iran (TNT, because packages sent by American couriers such as FedEx never arrive). Speed is often a factor, whether it’s finding a Stradivarius in one week, a building crane in one day, Japanese bottled water overnight or a private jet in one hour. Much must remain secret: carrying cash across borders, buying drugs, smuggling small animals and exotic seeds. There are some perks, from having Kate Moss as a customer to buying 101 roses with an unlimited budget. The most challenging tasks: finding a cable in Paris without speaking French; flying from London to Los Angeles for a three-hour stopover; entertaining Jennifer Allen.

Such tales might recall the tribulations of the personal assistant, as portrayed in the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) about a fashion editor’s hapless PA. Yet the gallery assistant’s origins seem to lie closer to those of the flight attendant, and are related to the literal rise of the service industry into the skies, where national borders and local laws are surpassed. Apart from looking good and being friendly, the flight attendant must be able not only to mix a perfect martini and sell duty-free goods but to evacuate 300 passengers from a burning plane. The gallery assistant’s work is similarly bound to the survival of the artist and the art work, subject and object. They spend their days searching for rare things – from a laser for cutting foam to black market Beluga caviar – while trying to complete Herculean tasks such as shipping an ice cube halfway around the world. Indeed, the true origin of the gallery assistant is the beautiful yet often poor hero of myth or fairy tale, who must complete a series of tasks, both banal and exceptional, to gain redemption – although there appears to be none for the gallery assistant. The exemplar is the titular command given to Andrei the hunter in the Russian tale ‘Go to “I do not know where” and bring me back “I do not know what”.’ All in a day’s work.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.