Photography Magazine

Gallerina: A Piece of Crap

By Briennewalsh @BrienneWalsh
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Gallerina: A Piece of Crap

Gallerina: A Piece of Crap

My first job when I moved to New York was at a famous art gallery, where I was a receptionist for just under a year. If you ask Silky Wilky why I left—we first became friends working together—he’d tell you I was fired for writing about penises on my work email. In actuality, I was just accused of doing such a thing, by the meanest girl I’ve ever met, who went through my desk during my lunch break. But given that there was no evidence, they couldn’t let me go. Instead, I left of my own volition. It was the most humiliating experience of my entire life.

Afterwards, thinking that I would make it big by writing “The Devil Wears Prada” about the art world, I began a mostly autobiographical novel about my experience at the gallery.  I gave up on it about five years ago out of boredom.

In honor of the new Bravo show, Gallery Girls, which premieres tonight, I’ve posted two chapters of it below. The show is actually like the C-list version of my own experience. I’ve never heard of a single one of the galleries that the girls are working at. But their stories are similar to mine…which speaks poorly of me.

Gallerina: A Piece of Crap

Keep in mind that much of it is either completely exaggerated or fictional. But since no one is ever going to publish this piece of shit—seriously it reads like US Weekly written by a high school student—I thought that I’d post some of it on my blog. 

Without further ado, the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever written…

Chapter 3

I arrived at the interview the next morning fully equipped to answer formulaic questions on all of the artists that Hoof Gallery represented. I could tell you about the way that they represented the abyss in their lines, or were influenced by the tumultuous post-war era in the 1950s.

I was way too early, so I decided to take stock of the neighborhood. Tottering up and down 57th street in my ridiculously high heels, I was amazed to see how many galleries lined the street. There were entire buildings of galleries, piled on top of each other in pretty white, concealed boxes. Some of the antiques galleries displayed vases or sculptures, but most had wide windows blocked by starched white panels that blocked the view of the interiors to pedestrians on the street. I felt like I could walk into any given building buildings and climb the stairs, only to encounter floor after floor of white walls without entrances.

It occurred to me that people must walk past these galleries every day, on the way to their midtown offices, or dingy Upper East Side walk-ups, and be unaware of them. Galleries weren’t like retail stores that invited shoppers to come and spend time. They were designed to keep people out. They were secret clubs that required an invitation.

Fifteen minutes before the interview started, wobbling and blistered in my heels, I headed to the entrance of Hoof. It was so nondescript compared to the bespoke tailor store next door, that at first I thought that I had the wrong place.

“Well hello young lady!” The doorman beamed, holding open the door with a flourish. He was everything anyone could want from a doorman- doting, Eastern European, and very welcoming.

“Hello,” I said, my cheap pleather resume folder in my trembling hand. It was my first adult interview, and I was starting to get very nervous.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to see Esther at Hoof.”

“But of course, 4th floor.”

He walked briskly to the two elevators, pressing the “up” key with a strange enthusiasm, as if he was relishing my ascent. 

I arrived to an empty hallway, carpeted gray. Directly in front of me, there was a small window without any glass. It looked theatrical, like a plywood door in a set for a Beckett production. The window had that kind of fake, blank space. To the left of the window, there was a large glass door.

“Hello?” I said. No one answered. I walked up to the door, and pulled. It was locked.

“Hello?” I said again. I looked inside the door, and was confronted by a monumental Rothko, hanging on the back wall. There was a small waiting area in front of it, bordered on either side by bookshelves.

“Sorry.” Someone murmured, from the direction of the window. “Go right through.”

The door clicked, and I pulled it open. Upon entry, I turned to the right, in the direction of the voice. “Hello?”

An extremely handsome man popped his head out from a closet in the wall next to the door. 

He looked weary. He said nothing.

“Hi! I’m Betty. I’m here to meet Esther Worthington?”

“Yes.” A phone rang, breaking the stillness in the air. “One second.” The young man disappeared into the closet. “Hoof Gallery!” He chirped from within.

I stood awkwardly in front of the Rothko. All of a sudden, another handsome young man emerged from a doorway to the left of the painting, and scampered down the back of the bookshelves, like a mouse escaping from a hole. He glanced at me, summed me up, and moved on.

“Please sit,” the first young man said, popping his head out of the closet. “Esther Worthington will be with you in a moment. Can I get you some water?”

“No, thank you.” I picked one up a magazine, and pretended to be engrossed.

I sat for 25 minutes. Every 2 minutes, the door to the elevator would click, and someone would rush through, disappearing on either side of the bookshelves. Each time, thinking that it was Esther, and I would look up expectantly, ready to bubble. The person entering wouldn’t stop, but they took a moment to glance at me without expression. The phone kept on ringing. If I hadn’t heard voices murmuring, and the chirpy “Hoof Gallery,” I would have thought that the space around the bookshelves was uninhabited, an archival library.

At one point, the elevator clanged, and a tall woman emerged. She strode over to the door, and yanked on it. It didn’t open. “Johnnnnnnnnnn,” she growled, eyes blazing, when it didn’t immediately open.

The door clicked without a word from the closet.

“Esther Worthington?” I smiled. The woman was so beautiful that I felt immediately respectful. She was a superior human being to me. She stopped abruptly, tall, and perfectly dressed, her thin long legs ending in perfect leather ballet flats.

“What?” She snarled. She surveyed me with disdain, from my black, scuffed Aldo heels, up my thick, pale calves, to my cheap mixed-fabric black dress, to my face, decorated with make-up from the drug store. I began to stand up.

“What are you doing?” She asked, recoiling as if I were a rat on a subway platform. Then she brushed her long brown hair over her right shoulder, onto her back. Her fingers were perfectly manicured, her nail polish pale pink, her wrist clad in a Cartier watch. She turned away from me, past the closet, throwing the handsome young man inside a dirty look, leaving a trail of perfume behind her. I was awed.

“Esther,” said the handsome man, “is ready to see you now.”

I looked down the hallway.

“That’s not Esther, that’s Samantha. Esther is on the seventh floor.”

I gathered my things, and strode through the door, which clicked as I approached it. “Thanks a lot!” I said to the window.

“Hoof Gallery!” chirped the man inside.

The seventh floor was more alive than the fourth, and full of women. Esther Worthington met me at the elevator. She bore a striking resemblance to a muppet. Short and clad in an ill-fitting red suit, she was the physical antithesis of elegant. 

“How are you?” She looked at me blankly.

“Great!” I exclaimed. “I’m so excited to be here.”

“Yeah?” she said warily. I followed her into her office, and she gestured that I should sit down. It was a nondescript space, totally devoid of the cold gray sophistication of the waiting room downstairs. There were blinds on the window, and dirt behind them on the pane.

“So, you just graduated from college.”

“Yes, last week! But I’m ready to start working immediately. I’m not going to travel or anything like that.” I smiled, smug that I was such a hard worker, and not like the rest of my friends who were going to be fucking guys from Yale in Beijing.

“So, why do you want to work at Hoof?”

I thought this was the part of the interview when I would impress her so much that she would offer me a job on the spot. A true member of my generation, I thought that I was not only brilliant and special, but that people really cared about my opinions. I assumed that Esther would treat me like an indulgent adolescent at a cocktail party, engaging me in conversation about archaic, meaningless topics, as had professors at Brown. She would sit behind her desk, and listen, fascinated, as I spewed my thoughts on photorealism, and performance art. After the interview, as soon as the elevator closed behind me, she would walk around, confiding in people about how brilliant I was, and how well I had answered the questions.

In actuality, Esther Worthington just wanted to hire someone who was presentable, and wouldn’t get fired within a week. She didn’t give a shit about anything I said, I just needed to be able to speak.

“Well, I’ve read so much about the gallery. I studied all of the artists at Brown, and I really loved their work…”

I looked at Esther for affirmation that I should continue. She blinked.

“How much do you expect to make?” she said in response.

I was taken aback. I hadn’t even thought about it. I just wanted enough to pay for my rent, and a party dress every three weeks at Forever 21. I thought that Esther, if she offered me a job, would just tell me a number that was too small for me to accept.

“I guess just enough to live…?”


“Great?” I thought. I opened my mouth, ready to start spewing bullshit about how I would be so honored to work with her, but she cut me off.

“Can you answer phones?”

“I mean, yeah?” I said.

Esther blinked. “Ok.” And then, flatly, ”Do you have any questions for me?” 

“No, not really!” I could wax poetic about the scholar painters in the Song Dynasty, but no one had ever taught me about acting like an adult on an interview. For instance it didn’t even occur to me to mention, say, the job description.

“Great.” She said again.

“Ok! I would really, really love the job. It would like be an honor to work here every day.” 

(Who was I fooling; I didn’t even know what the fucking job was!)

“Yeah. I’ll be in touch.”

I stood up, hand outstretched. “It was so lovely to meet you.”

Esther Worthington smiled slightly.

I made my way out the door, and walked the fifteen blocks to Grand Central down Park Avenue, admiring the gleaming car dealerships along the way. At the top of the grand stairs in the main hallway, the head hunter who had gotten me the interview at Hoof called me.

“Guess what kiddo. Esther Worthington was really impressed.”


“Yeah, she said that you were great. Are you sitting down?”

The headhunter obviously didn’t mean that literally, but being obedient, I sat down on a step. “Yes.”

“You got the job!”

“Oh my god!” I stood up quickly, almost knocking over a guy in a trenchcoat behind me. He sighed, and kept on walking, a newspaper tucked under his arm

“And guess what else?”


“They want to pay you the maximum salary for a receptionist!”

“A what?”

“A receptionist!”

My mouth was agape. I didn’t know that I had been interviewing to be a receptionist. I fucking had an Ivy league degree.

“It’s the kind of job where you’ll move up quickly, kiddo. You start out as a receptionist, and next week you’ll be assistant to a dealer. Are you still sitting down?”

“Yes.” I plopped down on the stair.

“The salary is $35,000!”

“Oh my god!” That was more money that I had been expecting, although it wasn’t much. It meant that ½ of my salary would go towards rent, and the other half could go towards expenses. “I could afford my apartment in the East Village on a salary like that!”

“No kidding, sweetheart. So, what do you say?”

I could see the headhunter on the other line, with her googly headed expression. I thought about the six figures I could make as a cocktail waitress at the Ritz, where I had also been offered a job. Then, I thought about what my friends at Brown would say when I got a coveted job at an art gallery. It was so satisfying to think about their reactions.

“Alright, I’ll take it.”

“That’s the spirit! You start Monday, 9am. Same place, ask for Esther Worthington again.”

“That’s it? Is there anything else that I need to know?”

“Absolutely not, you just need to show up.” Marjorie Grant abruptly hung up the phone. 

I bounded down the stairs towards the ticket machines, and splurged on an US Weekly for the train ride home to Chappaqua. 

Chapter 4

I arrived on Monday morning decked out in an outfit from Annie Sez- a new Hermes copycat bag in classy dark denim, a black striped polyester button down shirt, and a demure knee-length “business-casual” skirt. My grandmother, forever the generous shopper, had used all of the pennies from her collection jar for a shopping spree. My parents were horrified that I had taken her money, but not horrified enough to dish over some cash. Being a generally selfish asshole, I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt.

The same Middle Eastern doorman was standing outside with his hands in his pockets, checking out girls. This time, he didn’t open the door, but smirked as I walked through to the elevator. I caught him surveying me from behind in the copper plate of the door at the end of the hallway.

The 4th floor was entirely dark when I emerged, except for one light in the window. Beyond the glass doors, the bookshelves were still and silent. I hadn’t realized that there were no windows, or sources of natural light, during my interview. To the left of the glass door, an alarm light blinked slowly, and started counting down.

“10, 9, 8, 7….”

Suddenly, the lights cascaded on, and the handsome young man, John From The Closet, appeared at the glass door.

“Hey, sorry, I was in the back, making coffee.”

“That’s alright.” I smiled. I was still a little spooked by the darkness. “Is anyone here yet?”

“No, we—I mean receptionists—get here 30 minutes before everyone else to set up.”

“Oh, ok.”

“Here, let me show you around. If you want, you can leave your bag here.” He walked over to the closet, and waved his arm inside. I peeked my head in. Crammed into the small space were a desk, a phone, and an old Dell laptop computer. Above the right side was a large, heavy cabinet, and in front was the blank, paneless window. I put my bag on the chair, the only space where there was room for it.

He led me down through the room full of bookshelves, pointing out things along the way.

“Well, here’s the staircase to print gallery, and then the exhibition space. Don’t let anyone use the stairs- they are really only for the dealers below to come pick up packages. The bathrooms are on the right; the dealers and the assistants are to the left. Make sure that you go to the bathroom before everyone arrives in the morning. You won’t really have a chance to go again before lunch.”

“Why not?” I said, trying to absorb what he was saying.

“Well, you can’t leave the desk unless someone comes to replace you. And no one will want to replace you, trust me.”

“Oh, ok…”

He barked a little laugh. “You’ll get used to it. Just try not to drink any coffee when you get here.”

We walked into another small room, fully stacked with top of the line appliances- a refrigerator, a cooking range, and gorgeous cedar cabinets. “Here’s the kitchen.”

“Oh wow, do people cook in here? That’s great, because I brought my lunch today.”

“Not really. We just use this to make tea, and to stock the fridge with drinks for the dealers. Do you know how to make coffee?”

I had never made coffee in my life. My food allowance at school had allowed for regular Starbucks, and my petty thefts at home provided extra money for Dunkin’ Donuts. “No, sorry.”

“Well, it’s really easy.” In the distance, a phone rang. “Shit!” John darted back down the hallway.

“Hoof Gallery!” I heard him chirp. “No, he’s not in yet, may I please take a message!”

I surveyed the kitchen again. In the back, there was a window, covered with brown paper and duct tape. It was a jarring decoration choice, in the elegant, clean space.

The handsome young man returned. “Sorry, sometimes the phone begins to ring early. You should probably try to go to the bathroom as quickly as possible, just in case.”

“Oh, ok.” Jesus, I thought. He couldn’t be serious about not being able to go to the bathroom. I was pretty sure that was illegal. “Is that what I’m mostly doing?”

“Yeah, there are some other things. I’ve actually only being doing the job for 2 weeks, and the girl right before me got fired.”

“Oh, wow.”

“Yeah, she was only here for 3 days. I don’t think that they’ve had someone steady for a while. No one really knows what we’re supposed to do.” He smiled at me sympathetically. “What’s your name again?”

“Hi, I’m Betty,” I said.

All of a sudden, the empty bookshelves were filled with the noise of a persistent pounding.

“BOOM!! BOOM!! BOOM!! BOOM!!” Came a sound from down the hallway.

John darted away again, and this time I followed him.

We arrived to find a stout, gray-haired man standing in front of the glass door, repeatedly pounding his fist above his head.

“I’m so sorry Stanley,” said John. Stanley grabbed the handle, and started pulling the door violently. It sounded like it was going to snap off of the frame. John rushed into the closet, and pushed a button on the floor with his foot.

Stanley entered the gray waiting area. He stopped for a minute, the fury mounting on his face, and sighed loudly. Without a word, he crossed the room, and entered a doorway to the left.

“Sorry, I’m going to have to show you around later.” John whispered, barely audible. “That was Stanley. When I’m done training you, I’m going to be his second assistant.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“He’s not so bad.”

I could hear Stanley start screaming into a phone from across the hallway.


There was a pause. I was paralyzed. I looked at John.


There was a pause again. Something smashed from inside of Stanley’s office. The elevator door clanged, and a pert looking man rushed to the door. Without pausing, John pressed the button the floor, and the man walked through the door, towards Stanley. Arriving at the office, he looked behind his shoulder at us, with desperate eyes, and shut the door.

Even muffled by the door, I could hear Stanley hysterically screaming.

“Get the fuck out of my office. GET THE FUCK OUT. You are fired. You are finished. Never come back here again. I’m calling Marla, and your job at the Whitney is gone. You will never work in the art world again. GET OUT!!!!!” Stanley’s voice had become a frenzy. He sounded like my mother she found out that my sister had been picking her nose, and wiping the boogers in her organic humus.

The door banged open, and the pert man hustled out. Stanley came behind him, the jacket to his suit flying behind him. “GET OUT!!!! IDIOT!! FOOL!!!” His face was red, and his voice was cracking.

John darted into the closet, and I tried to melt into the bookshelves, pressing myself against the section of book. Lucas Samaras, I read, my nose pressed against the spine. The glass door clicked again, and the pert man, expressionless, entered the elevator, and descended. Stanley returned to his office, and slammed the door. I checked my watch. It was 9:15.

John looked over at me. “Please go get a chair from the conference room.” He gestured in between the bookshelves, to an open door. “Please, please try to be quiet.”

I walked into the conference room. Also windowless, it was adorned with black & white pictures of men and women, a modern portrait gallery. I looked around, trying to find faces I recognized.

“Betty….” John hissed under his breath. “Come on….”

I dragged a chair from the table, back through the bookshelves. It slammed against the sides, knocking books off their perches. John winced.

“Pull yourself as close to me as possible,” he instructed. “Try not to sit too far outside in the hallway, people will need to get by.”

I pulled myself next to him, so close that our knees touched. I could smell his deodorant. “Don’t worry, I’m gay,” he winked.

I smiled at him knowingly.

“Joooohnnn.” Stanley reemerged, sing-songy and sweet. He looked like Nathan Lane in the Birdcage, short, effeminate, irrational, dying to be dressed like a woman. His suit was still askew, but he was now cooing. “Joooohn, my darling, I need you to come help me.”

He turned on his heel, and trotted back into the office, leaving the door open.

John looked at me. “Ok, I guess I won’t be training you. Just push this button,” he gestured to the floor, “whenever you hear the elevator open. Make sure that it’s open before the person reaches the door. No one is in the gallery yet, so answer the phone ‘Hoof Gallery,’ and take a message. Also, call Gloria on 200, and tell her it’s an emergency, she needs to come upstairs to show you how to answer the phone. She can get a registrar to cover the gallery. Good luck.” He put on his suit jacket, slung over the back of his chair. “Oh, one more thing, if a call comes for Stanley, call me on extension 405. If his calls don’t come through, he’ll fire you.”

I watched John hurry to the office. It was the last time I ever spoke to him.

I did as John told me, sitting in terror until the elevator clanged, and a statuesque black woman emerged. She cocked her head at me. “Poor thing,” Gloria said, coming around the corner to where I sat. “You doing ok?”

I laughed halfheartedly. “Yeah, I guess.”

She smiled down at me, with a strange mix of condescension and pity. “Ohhhhh… well, I can help for 30 minutes until we open the exhibition space downstairs.”

She was thin as a rail, and wore a Chanel suit, immediately recognizable by the buttons on the jacket. Her hair was perfectly coiffed around her shoulders. She held out a long, thin hand in my direction, a ridiculously large engagement ring glistening on her ring finger. “Come, let’s switch seats.”

Gloria was the kind of woman who never spoke loudly, or out of turn. Every movement she made was graceful. She did small things, like sitting down and typing, with elegance.

“So, it’s your first day?” I didn’t even notice her press the “open door” button with her foot as someone disembarked from the elevator, and slid easily through the glass door. “Oooh,” she pouted her lips. “You’ll be fine. You’re very pretty.”

I looked down at myself. Was she kidding? I was like a lumpy beast next to her.

“Hoof Gallery,” she cooed.

Stanley reemerged from his office. “Hello, Gloria,” he said affably. Gloria had a pedigree I was unaware of. She had dated Robert DeNiro. She was marrying a major hedge fund investor. For years, she had lived in an apartment for free, merely because the landlord was in love with her. She was a New York aristocrat, a socialite hired to enhance the gallery’s name. She was famous for keeping her paychecks in her desk drawer, and not cashing them until the head of finance at the gallery told her that she was unbalancing his books. Her breath stank from years of bad habits as a bulimic. She was everything I had expected from the art world.

Not lifting his eyes from appraising Gloria, Stanley growled, “Go get me a cup of coffee.”

I looked to Gloria, confused by the change in tone.

“Betty, would you please get Stanley a cup of coffee with whole milk and one sugar? On a tray, with a saucer and a cloth napkin.”

Stanley smirked at her, pulled off his glasses with a flourish, and strode back into his office. I hurried to complete the mission, carrying the tray back with trembling hands, almost tripping as I approached the door to the office. John greeted me, wordlessly, with a paper towel. He wiped off the coffee that I had spilled down the cup in my fumbling, and disappeared back behind the door.

Gloria proceeded, in 20 minutes, to teach me more about the gallery than I learned from anyone else in the next year. Unbeknownst to me, Hoof was a massive organization, bigger than many museums. There were four gallery locations in the city, one uptown, and three in Chelsea. Hoof also had a small gallery in Los Angeles, and the newly opened exhibition space at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. They owned shares in many smaller print and works on paper galleries around the world, and leant their name to three galleries housed in 57th street building. They dealt not only with the sale of contemporary art, but also with the image licensing, and the estates of all of the artists that they represented.

At the 57th street location, there were 15 floors. Ten of them were assigned to the Hoofempire. The second floor held a large, clean gallery space, where the exhibitions were shown. Every six weeks a new solo show was mounted with the newest works by living artists, or significant, connected works by those already deceased. In the summer, there was a group show that rivaled the permanent collections shown at the MOMA, or the Whitney. The gallery used not only pieces that it owned for these exhibitions. They also borrowed pieces from private collectors and major museums, creating a type of exhibition that was not only sale, but also spectacle, a display of power and influence. No other gallery in New York mounted shows that were as well curated, or as well received critically. Every show had a catalog, an essay written by an art historian, advertisements in every major art publication, and a review in the New Yorker and the New York Times. They were launched with opening parties attended by celebrities from all spheres of New York glitterati- fashion, publishing, finance, and entertainment. Paparazzi flooded the floors of these events, and the gallery girls like me were their subjects.

In the center of the gallery itself was a circular desk, in the center of which presided Gloria, resplendent. Unlike museums, which attracted not only art lovers, but common tourists- Germans with their loud voices and shorts, Japanese with their cameras, the Argentinians with their funky haircuts, the Chinese with their fanny packs—Hoof was graced with the presence of only the most cultured and sophisticated of visitors. The shows were of course advertised, but that didn’t mean that they were open to the public. Hoof kept the commoners away by not only hiding it’s entrance in a narrow, unassuming building, with all of the windows covered, but also by using of all it’s employees. If you happened to catch sight of the doorway past Jacob the jeweler, glistening in tacky glory down the street, you were deterred from coming upstairs by the line of chauffeured cars waiting outside of the covered entrance, or the doorman, who ignored you, leaning against the wall, forcing you to open the door for yourself. If you did in fact gather the courage to call the elevator, you traveled up and down to blank, unmarked floors, sheathed by glass entrances, or bustling groups of women chattering nonsense. If you were important enough to be welcome, the doorman knew who you were, and the building opened itself up to you. You were given an empty exhibition space to revel in the masterpieces displayed, and full access to gaze upon Gloria, who anticipated your every need. Before you had a chance to even approach her with a question, she had called down one of the eight dealers, the best in their fields, who raised you up to the fourth floor, where I sat, bewildered at first, and increasingly miserable.

On the third floor there was a print gallery, selling one of kind editions of etchings, works on paper, and wood cuts from modern masters, and contemporary galleries. It had a separate staff from our gallery, but sold the re-printed editions of our artists. It was no poster store, however. An average print cost close to $25,000. If you were visiting Hoof Prints, perhaps you were buying Pat Steirs for your third daughter’s new loft in Soho, at the behest of her decorator, who wanted the place to be shot for Domino magazine.

On the fourth floor was my closet, which we will come back to, as it was my domain, closest to my heart, and most deserving of my attention. The fifth floor held the art handlers, all young artists themselves, and the private viewing rooms. If they weren’t on their way to being famous for their works, then they were connected to the famous in the art world. They were the boyfriends of the Schnabels, or the sons of German art tycoons, slumming it in Brooklyn, nursing their cocaine habits as they lifted art and packaged it to be shipped. They existed knee-deep in some of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century, impervious to them. The year that I started working, while they were hanging a Rothko show, one of them, hung-over, cut his finger without realizing it, and ruined a painting. Being the son of someone important, he wasn’t fired. At the other, lesser gallery spaces in New York, they were hipsters and poor artists, unseen to clients and equipped with plaid shirts. At Hoof, they were hand-picked for their good looks, clad in Paul Smith suits, and present during viewings with major clients. They were never sweaty, always congenial and charming.  It was clear that if they behaved- kept from doing cocaine during work, slept with the most advantageous girls at the parties, remained perfectly dressed- they would eventually be promoted as dealers. That is, when they finally gave up the foolish pursuit of making art.

On the next three floors resided the archivists, the registrars, and the graphic designers.  The registrars were almost entirely women, all experts at shipping, and tracking the priceless art collections as they traveled around the world. They were the control room in our secret operation, tucked away in cubicles, with spreadsheets and computer systems. The older, more experienced registrars were married, with one exception, to other senior support staff at the gallery. Through years of forced socializing, of existing in the specific, inclusive world at Hoof, they probably found comfort in their separation from people in other industries. Not quite artists, but not quite administrators, too fancy to live in the cheaper neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but too poor to live anywhere else, they had comfortable, Hoof-centered lives without children.

The younger registrars were the pretty young things that I had encountered in my art history classes at Brown. They were the socialites, the girls who, had they been less well-connected, would have worked in Public Relations at Condé Nast. They weren’t working to support themselves, or to further their careers. They were killing time, hardly putting in any effort to anything besides their social lives, and their outfits. They lived on the Bowery, or in their parent’s empty apartments on the Upper East Side, taking cabs to work, and dressing to have their photographs taken at events. During lunch hours, they disappeared for two hours, filling themselves with petite salads at the café in Bergdorf Goodman, and returning with manicures. They pranced up and down the floors, flaunting their prettiness in their ballet flats and $400 dollar dresses, mostly avoiding the serious business going on downstairs. The dealers referred to them occasionally, in fleeting conversation with the collectors. “Oh, you know that Elaine of the Winthrop family works here, lovely girl.” “Yes, the collectors would reply, “we know the family from Aspen.” Like Andy Warhol and his society girls at the Factory, the dealers knew how to use the girls to rope in the big money. Most of them were oil heiresses from Texas, minor royalty from Europe, or serious finance JAPS from Manhattan- gallerinas at Hoof rarely came from anywhere else. They dated the art dealers, but settled down at home, marrying the limp sons of old money. Their allies worked in the public relations. And they mostly hated me. Maggie came from their ranks.

The graphic designers and archivists were mostly men in their 40s. They were potheads, intelligent, but mostly uninterested in furthering themselves. At night, they went home to alone, and nursed their collections of vintage pornography, or listened to records of the bands that they were in when they first moved to New York, twenty years before. One of the social obligations of the lower support staff, including myself, was to attend concerts by these bands when they played at the empty clubs in the West Village, in the midst of New York University territory, where newcomers and tourists flocked believing that they were experiencing the grittiness of the village.

As you ascended the floors, the positions became more mixed, the departments smaller. The finance people, all Asian accountants, were mixed in with the maintenance guys. There was a dealer who had gone senile, but whom the gallery had kept on because she was the only PhD in the entire organization. There were cousins of the family, with indefinable positions, shuffling around in their early 50s, looking inbred and complaining about their lonely lives. On the top floor was the public relations department, run by the wife of the Hoof heir, newly pregnant. She was placed the maximum distance away from her husband, who worked on the dealer floor, presumably because he was easily distracted. He probably was never told where she really worked- both to keep them separated, and because she hadn’t married him to be bothered by his attentions. She ruled over the only windowed office, with four assistants. They worked on the small details of events- the rsvp lists, the catering, the white wine selection. They barely had to work on the publicity. If journalists didn’t write about the gallery, they didn’t receive the advertising money, or any images. Hoof held the monopoly not only on artists, but also on museums, which relied on them to supply art and taste. It didn’t take long to look at the Hoof list of collectors to realize that most of the patrons of major museums were buying their art almost exclusively from the behemoth gallery.  

Between the floors on the upper levels were other Hoof-affiliated galleries, with their own small staffs. There was a primitive art gallery, run by an Italian who had been conducting a serious affair with his assistant for the better part of eight years. The assistant was stout and cranky. She lorded her status as mistress. When the wife of the Italian found out that he was conducting the affair, she left him, and he dumped the miserable stunted assistant, almost immediately, to marry a younger, better model, belonging to another dealer.

There was a photography gallery, one of the best in the world, where an Ivy League wasp ruled the Polaroid market. His son had attended school with me. They lived in Greenwich. His entire staff consisted of young Christian men, closeted to the extreme, sexless and stiff.

The most important floor, where I was located, was the fourth floor. It was ruled by the art dealers, tucked away alongside the bookshelves, in hidden cubbyholes. There were three tiers of dealers. All but one was a man. The most junior three didn’t have assistants. They were aging boys who had proved their mettle for years at Hoof, starting out as art handlers. After years of disappointments, first failing at their art, and then failing to free themselves from the Hoof machine, they had grow-up physically, if not emotionally. They had graying hair, and sighed audibly throughout the day, equally dispassionate in the face of the business, and their families. None of them came from money, but they were handsome, and had thereby caught the eye of the owner of Hoof, Mr. M. All three were divorced. They spent their days attending to very few things, taking phone calls as they came from clients who were not known to the gallery, and therefore not reliable sources of commisions. They wore their Prada suits dutifully, and were eager to talk to us lesser employees about the 80s punk bands that they had led in their glory days. All three were nice, especially to me. I think that they recognized, in my increasingly weary eyes, their own deadening.

The next tier of dealers was better at lying to themselves, and therefore better at the sale. It must have occurred to them that they were often selling over-priced crap to collectors who barely knew about art, or cared to learn, but they were caught up in the tide of names, the prestige of money. Art to them had a face value, but no depth. They were uneducated about real art, not artists themselves but career administrators; fancy Porsche dealers of paint and metal and canvas.  The Hoof name had been built on the foundation of incredibly talented artists who, like anyone else, became turgid and dull in the face of success. Hoof sold these artists masterpieces, from early in their careers, in the burgeoning 1950s, to the museums. They sold their alcoholic, studio-produced, late 90s death works to the investment bankers and executives who bought them in the same manner that they purchased ugly McMansions in the Hamptons. The works were good for nothing but the names attached to their production.

“Oh yes, we just bought this Ellsworth Kelly,” I could see one private equity dealer to another, pointing to a flat orange shape on a white canvas, perfectly matched to the vacant organ décor of the massively empty living room overlooking the next gray shingle mansion in Southampton.

“That’s great, it looks just like my Motherwell,” the other would say.

“And me, a Jasper John,” another would pipe in.

“Jim Dine!” ad infinitum.

The only women dealer in the big league was in the second tier. Her name was Mary Slyly, and no one was sure where she had come from. She certainly wanted people to think that she had been raised in Connecticut, with ponies, South American nannies, and winter homes in Palm Beach. She tried to make her presence, and her importance known by constantly dropping names.

“Yes, well I live at 64th and Madison, but I’m thinking of moving,” Mary would say to a third tier, in the main sitting area.

“Oh, yes?”

“Yessss,” she would drawl, pursing her thin, dry lips together. She was always clad in whatever season it was almost at Prada- spring in winter, summer in spring. The clothing was dark and drab, and fit her squarely. In her insecurity, she comported herself like an uncomfortable man, a regional banker who was just a bit too tall to be anonymous. “Although a Tisch just moved into the building, right below me. Their view is not quite so nice as mine.”

“Hmm,” would say the third tier, his mind on the video game he was returning to at the computer on his desk.

She never spoke with me directly, unless it was to comment on my physical appearance. 

“Lovely bracelet,” she purred if someone else was in earshot.

“Can’t they get someone presentable to work here?” She snarled if we were alone.

You knew that you were a top tier dealer if you had two or more assistants. To be at the top, you had to be a member of the M family, the art world aristocrats who owned the gallery, or Stanley, who made most of the money and was allowed the privilege of his position. Those few who did reach the great heights usually left with their collector list after a few years, and started their own organization. Five out of the eight top galleries in New York City were started by former Hoof dealers. But these dealers could never really escape paying a tariff to the emperor. If they discovered someone young and extraordinary, it wasn’t long before Hoof took notice of them, and poached them. For an artist, being discovered by a top tier was like winning the lottery. Being picked up by Hoof was like retiring on your quadrupled investments.

The M family, at the time, was the most important dynasty in the exclusive sphere of the art world. Reclusive and unassuming, they were barely visible in polite society.  The patriarch was a paranoid. His office was located at the back of the fourth floor, next to the kitchen. It faced an airshaft. To be safe, he covered the windows with the same brown paper as in the kitchen, and sealed them with duct tape. Unreasonably, he felt that if he left the windows uncovered, people could spy on him. What they would see was beyond the knowledge of anyone who worked at the gallery. To this day, I believe that they would have found him on his hands and knees, next to his doting assistant, rubbing down the arms of his chairs with Purrell.

It would take more than twenty minutes with Gloria to unravel the character of Mr. M, although in my year at the gallery, I never reached very far. His genius lay in his exquisite taste, his ability to sell. Even Gloria knew very little about him besides the name of his driver, the location of his apartment, and the fact that his wife came from a ton of money.

“Just make sure that he doesn’t have to wait for anything,” Gloria put her hand over mine. “He won’t notice another thing about you.”

By the time that I started working at Hoof, Mr. M had already tried—and failed—his hand in the film industry. He had produced one movie, a tepid success and was attempting to put together a musical.  Stanley had already replaced him as the terror to behold in the gallery. And his son was slowly being handed the reigns of the empire.

In the center of the fourth floor, there was an office.  This office jutted into the waiting room. It faced the majority of the covered windows on the street. It was the easiest space to discover among the maze of bookshelves. It had an attached cubby with room for two assistants. It belonged to Little M, son of Mr. M, future director of Hoof Galleries Incorporated.

In the midst of Gloria’s lesson about Hoof, a little man jumped out of the elevator, and yelled, “Boo!” The little man had springy, red curls. The popped out of his head in all different directions, tightly wound. He wore rimless glasses that framed his wide, innocent blue eyes. In form and style he looked like Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka, his eyes swerving from side to side with pure mischief. At any minute, I expected him to fling a cane in the air, his striped violet jacket revealing an army of oompa loompas from inside its folds.  

“Who is this?!” he asked Gloria, delighted.

Gloria laughed indulgently, slapping her thin, bejeweled hands against her thin, elegant knees.

“Why, this is Betty! She is new here!”

The little man made a rabbit face, sticking his teeth over his bottom lip, and his fingers behind his ears. “Hello Betty.”

Gloria chuckled enthusiastically, sweeping her Catherine Deneuve like coiffe behind her left ear. She tilted her head.

“Hello,” I smiled sweetly. The little man sucked on his front lip, moving his teeth like he was about to eat a carrot.

The elevator opened behind him.

“Oh, little M,” a pretty blonde girl said, emerging. “Are you doing your rabbit impression for the receptionist?” She looked at me warily.

“I’m waiting for my treat!”

“Oh, but I have your treat in my office. Come on now, you have a meeting in 15 minutes.”

The blonde led Mr. M through the glass door, and into the center office. As he disappeared behind the bookshelf, he turned around and waved to me over his shoulder. Gloria and I smiled at him as he disappeared.

“Was that Little M’s wife?” I said brightly, referring to the blonde woman.

Gloria smirked. “Oh no, darling, that’s his first assistant. His wife never comes in this early in the morning.”

Gloria looked down, and checked her watch.

“Well, look at the time, love. I must go downstairs before one of those crude little registrars encounters a client and gets fired by Stanely. Good luck, and call me any time on the intercom.” 

I started to protest, terrified of her leaving. “Oh, you’ll be fine. Come down at lunch, and we’ll talk about what you should wear tomorrow.”

“Thank you. But Gloria…”

“Door, darling.” I tapped on the button on the floor, and the door clicked open. She came around to my little window, reaching almost the top of the frame in her height.

“Now, only a few very small things to remember. Always, always open the door the minute that the elevator door opens. Pick up the phone by the second ring. Mr. M and Stanley get top priority- put their calls through immediately. Oh, and don’t ever get out of your seat, unless you have someone to cover you. Not even if you have to go to the bathroom.”

“John told me.” I almost relished in the inhumanness of this ”small thing.” Not only did I have to sit in a closet, I also wasn’t allowed to relieve myself! I couldn’t wait to tell all of my friends over IM.

“Yes, very serious. If you need to use the bathroom, call me, and I will find someone to replace you.”


“Oh, you look so scared. Don’t be scared.” She stuck out her bottom lip. “I know you’ll be just fine.

After she left, I took a minute to take in my surroundings. Sitting in the closet space, I couldn’t stretch out my arms. I was wedged between and L-shaped desk, and the opening where the door should have been. Behind my head was a wall. On the wall there were lists of extensions, extensive rows of hundreds of names, covering the entire wall. Above the lists was a cabinet, full of chocolate snacks- bit sized snickers, hershey kisses, little kit kat bars, dove chocolate bites. These treats would serve as my breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next year. 

I turned on my computer, and began logging into my various social media accounts. My AIM. My Facebook. Gmail. The phone rang. It rang again, and again, four times. It barely registered to me, absorbed as I was in reconnecting.

From nowhere, Little M’s assistant emerged from behind her bookshelf barricade.

“Answer the phone!” She hushed furiously, behind her teeth.

“Shit! Sorry!” I said. But by then, the phone had already stopped ringing.

I peeked my head out to see if Little M’s assistant was still standing, watching me. She was. Her arms were crossed. “You had better hope that wasn’t Mr. M.”

The phone rang again.

“Hello!” I chirped, doing my best imitation of John. “This is Hoof Gallery, how may I direct your call.”

Who is this?” A weary voice, slightly nasal, condescended over the phone.

“This is Betty. I just started this morning.” 

The voice sighed. The speaker audibly gritted his teeth. I looked over at Little M’s assistant. The speaker hadn’t said he was Mr. M, which led me to believe that it wasn’t in fact Mr. M. Surely someone so important would have introduced himself immediately, to avoid any delay in transferring his call. I looked over at the assistant, making a puzzled, relieved face. She was standing with her forehead in her hands, shaking her blonde head back and forth.

“With whom would you like to speak?”

“Little M.” The voice dripped, making me shrink in my seat.

“Ok, one moment please.” I looked over at the list, and hummed to myself, trying to find Little M’s name.  It took me at least 30 seconds. The list wasn’t arranged alphabetically.

Very slowly, making sure not to make a mistake, I dialed Little M’s extension, and hung up the phone.

In what seemed like a heartbeat, the blonde assistant was in front of my desk.  She was very pretty, and not exactly threatening. She wore a woman’s pantsuit, and a blue silk camisole. Her suit looked like it was from Express (this was a distinction I very quickly learned. It was very easy to tell a dealer from an assistant by the quality of their clothing).

“Hiii,” she said. She winced, her top lip turning down.  “So, that was Mr. M. That was very bad.”

“Oh!” I made an oops face, like, hey what’s the big fucking deal! He got through to the call. I mean, come on it wasn’t like Mr. M was the president, and we were in the midst of a nuclear crisis. I was new- didn’t they understand that? Why couldn’t Mr. M wait a few extra seconds on the phone?

“Yeah. Has anyone trained you?”

“Gloria was up here for a little while this morning. She’s really nice!”

“Yeah, hmmm. I don’t mean to scare you, but the last three people who worked as receptionists were fired within a week. Except for John, who apparently got promoted today. But he’s a guy.”

“Yeah, Gloria told me.” I pretended to look concerned. In my mind, I was a few days away from a promotion. I was going to ace the receptionist thing. I went to an Ivy League school.

“Listen. I’m going to tell you a few important things. You seem like a relatively nice girl. Or at least you look very innocent. Plus, I’m sick of this turnover. Little M has barely gotten any of his calls in like the last two months.”

She held up her hands, and began ticking off fingers. “First, the longest that Mr. M should be on hold is 3 seconds. I’m not kidding. Three seconds, and then you should start to panic. Pull that hold thing one more time with him, and I guarantee you won’t even meet him before he gets rid of you. The same goes for Stanley- never put him on hold. The other dealers can wait, but they get top priority as well. Do you know the dealer’s names?”

I shook my head. “Some of them.”

“You had better learn them quickly, and by voice.  They expect you to know these things- a dealer won’t say their name when they call. They are not going to have patience.

“Also, you should never, ever, ever, ever, EVER call a dealer directly. In fact, you don’t even SPEAK to a dealer directly, unless they address you. You are here to open the door, answer the phone, and be invisible. If you need to convey something to a dealer, you call his assistant.  I assume that you don’t know their names either.”

She sighed. “See those highlighted names?” She pointed to the list behind my phone. “Those are the dealer’s assistants. Blue for second assistant, yellow for first. The initials of the dealer attached are next to each name. Learn them quickly. Did you meet any of them this morning? You know what, don’t even answer that. You probably didn’t. You’ll start to notice them around the office now that I told you to pay attention to them.”

At that moment, a bland looking young woman scampered across the waiting room, and disappeared into a corner. She was wearing a calf-length skirt. She looked like a cross between a Mormon and Edith Wharton. “That’s Emma Lou. She’s Mary Slyly’s assistant.”

“Ahhh,” I thought. So the people shifting around the office constantly were the assistants!

“Oh, another thing. The phone calls go to the dealer’s second assistant. If they don’t have a second assistant, then they go to the first assistant. I’m Little M’s first assistant. This should be the last time that I talk to you for the next few weeks- my second rarely goes to lunch. As for the junior dealers, they take their own calls. They don’t get many, so you don’t really have to worry about them. Did you get all of that?

I nodded my head wearily. The girl seemed like a real bitch. Wait until she found out that I knew Boris Yeltsin’s grandson from college.

“One more thing- just say Hoof Gallery. If you say more than that, you make this place sound like a car dealership. We are NOT a car dealership.”

The phone rang. “Well, that’s you, good luck. By the way, my name is Claire.” The girl turned on her heel, and disappeared inside her lair.

And so it began. The onslaught of phone calls. I spent the rest of the morning answering, putting people on hold, and trying to figure out where their calls should go. My chipper little voice resounded around the gallery on the intercom, increasingly confused.

“Laura?….Laura? LAURA?”

“Yes.” An angry voice would reply.

“Oh, hi! Sorry to bother you. You have a call on line 1. Oh, I have to go.” And the phone would ring again.

I noticed very little else, in my frenzy. The elevator door opened, the elevator door closed. I often forgot to push the button, and very rarely noticed whom I was letting in.  The door would start to rattle, or someone would yell open, and I would scoot to push the button with my foot. It could have been an art thief in a catsuit with a face mask, and I would have let them in. To be safe, I continuously started to tap my foot. The door would click, I would open it. The door would click, I would open it. In the empty, silent space of the waiting room, the sound of the ringing and the clicking were my only companions.

When people did enter the space, they didn’t say hello to me. It was like being in a nightmare where you are sitting in an airport, answering a pay phone for strangers who were impossible to find, but still annoyed that you can’t figure out where they are.  As the morning wore on, I slowly began to recognize names and numbers. It seemed as though the same five people received the majority of the phone calls. Most of the names remained anonymous. Mr. M never called back, although I anticipated his sneer with every ring.

Noon came quickly, and brought with it Maggie.

She emerged from the elevator with a group of shorter, plainer girls. They wore headbands and wrap dresses. Most of them looked like the girls from my high school- insignificant, expensively dressed, and unnecessarily superior. They had everything required for social success, but no individual characteristics. Beneath the Burberry scarves, the Loro Piana cashmere sweaters, the Louis Vuitton shoulder bags, the Audi A4 sedans, they were blank spaces, white chalk outlines of personalities.

“See, I told you,” Maggie turned to the one to her left, who was fiddling with her curly black hair. “Horrible, right?”

“You’re so right. I don’t know what they see in her.”

“Hoof Gallery!” I said in response, pushing the button to open the door.

As they filed out of the elevator, the last one to emerge smiled at me with sympathy. She looked about my age, vaguely Asian. She was the only non-white person I had seen besides Gloria. I couldn’t say what, but there was something different about her. She hesitantly followed the rest of the girls through the door.

Gallerina: A Piece of Crap

Instead of heading into a corner office, or back along the bookshelves, the girls stopped in front of my closet.

“Get up,” Maggie said.

“What?” The phone rang. “Hoof Gallery!”

“I said get up! It’s your lunch break.” She sneered, and the girls took her cue, sneering in synchronization. The only one not to join in was the Asian one.

“Um,” I was confused. It seemed strange to me that Maggie, in all of her glory, would be the one to replace me during my lunch break. Wasn’t she booked to lord over the group of girly blobs at Bergdorf Goodman?

“Are you stupid? Get up.”

I reached down beneath my desk, and retrieved my bag, which held my pathetic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and my bag of goldfish snack crackers. I stood up, and Maggie shoved me aside, taking my seat.

“Nice bag,” she leered. “And be back by 1pm, I have a hair appointment this afternoon.

I spent my lunch in the corporate park across the street from the gallery, watching pigeons pluck from discarded sandwiches under the tables. Even though it was summer, the light was dreary. In the air space above the seating, there was a huge, paper tube that extended like a demented spider across the ceiling. Occasionally, it emitted a weak “moo.” I couldn’t figure out if it was a defective cooling system or an art installation. I didn’t know how I’d made it through the rest of the day, but somehow, I did.

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