Babes in the Woods: Bravo’s Gallery Girls Take on the Big Bad Art World

Think 'Girls' with less pathos

gallery girls Babes in the Woods: Bravos Gallery Girls Take on the Big Bad Art World

Gallery Girls: (l-r) Amy Poliakoff, Angela Pham, Maggie Schaffer, Liz Margulies, Kerri Lisa, Claudia Martinez, Chantal Chadwick — Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

A few Thursdays ago, while a tornado warning was in effect for the island of Manhattan, Liz Margulies and Claudia Martinez Reardon were at an art opening in Chelsea, having their shoes photographed. Ms. Margulies’s look is one that could be described as punky chic. Her hair is blonde and she has a nose stud. She carried a spiked Louis Vuitton clutch at the end of one tattooed arm. Ms. Martinez Reardon, who appears in the new Bravo reality show Gallery Girls with Ms. Margulies, is a Brooklyn brunette and wore a hippyish tan dress.

“This represents us so perfectly,” said Ms. Martinez Reardon, as the Bravo photographer, sent to document their gallery-hopping, zoomed in on her feet. ”I’m in Swedish clogs and you’re in, what are those, Louboutins?”

“Yeah,” said Ms. Margulies, who is the daughter of the Miami-based art collector Martin Margulies. There was a playful resignation in her voice, like she’d thought she’d gotten away with something. On the first episode of the show, which airs this week, Ms. Martinez Reardon and Ms. Margulies are not the best of friends—in fact, Ms. Martinez Reardon’s thong peeks out of her dress at one opening and Ms. Margulies pointedly does not tell her about it—but the experience of doing the show seemed to have bonded them. Soon they were mocking my shoes, together.

Summer is slow in Chelsea, and there wasn’t much to like at the galleries they visited. Ms. Martinez Reardon took a photo of one glittery fabric piece because, she said, it reminded her of a friend’s work, and also because it would look good on Instagram. Ms. Margulies said the piece hurt her eyes. Her tastes are of a different vintage: Rothko, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Warhol—the things she grew up with. She hasn’t bought much art herself. “Being around all of the art my dad has, if I was to go out and buy a painting, I would feel kind of ridiculous because I can’t afford any of the stuff I’m used to looking at,” she said. “You know what I mean?”

Ms. Margulies accepted a Pabst Blue Ribbon at the back of a gallery, and Ms. Martinez Reardon teased, “Are you sure that’s not too ‘downtown’ for you?” They’re jokey with the descriptions the show applies to them (“Find where you stand in the Brooklyn vs. UES divide,” says the show’s website, “by reading the girls’ bios”), since those descriptions are a little broad, and they can’t do anything about them. Neither has seen the show, but the potential for negative portrayal doesn’t make them nervous. “It’s like this tornado,” Ms. Martinez Reardon said. “Either it’s going to happen or it isn’t.”

“I’ve spent years living on planet art-world,” scoffed the critic Blake Gopnik in an early review, “and I couldn’t see any trace of it in a program that’s supposed to be set there.” The show’s production company, Magical Elves, is behind Top Chef, Project Runway and the art world’s own Bravo competition show Work of Art, but when it aimed for a more documentary style with Gallery Girls, it seemed to be courting the ire of perhaps the world’s last closed-door business. Scandalized, nobody could imagine who might participate in such a thing, and gossip about the girls, while the show filmed, was a hot commodity. A reporter who’d revealed a few of their names once rose to leave after drinks with an art adviser, who then motioned for him to sit back down. “Wait,” she said. “Before you go—what else do you know about the Gallery Girls?”

What does anyone know? One who is portrayed as lazy, according to her borough-feud-inducing bio, apparently worked at the Wolfsonian Museum, the David Zwirner Gallery, the Paul Kasmin Gallery and the Leila Heller Gallery. And as for the uptown classification, Ms. Margulies actually lives in Gramercy, and wants to be a graphic designer. Ms. Martinez Reardon, on the other hand, who is opening her own gallery on the Lower East Side and is seen as something of an outsider on the show, spent a year working at the Gagosian Gallery; before that she was at Matthew Marks, one of those tragic figures who sit alone in the gallery’s glass box at the corner of 10th and 22nd. “It’s very lonely there,” she said. “You do feel everyone’s eyes.”

Though many have sympathy for them, it’s fair to say that gallery girls, the ones who sit behind the desk and give you a once-over as you enter, are, as a species, loathed. They’re not even worthy of a catchy neologism—there is “gallerina,” though nobody uses this, and far more frequently you’ll hear someone refer to the “front desk girl,” which goes so far as to suggest that she is not even a part of the gallery proper. It’s hard to say why exactly they’re so despised. It might be their aloofness; it might be that they’re perceived as hangers-on. It might be that they’re a daily agenbite, a reminder of the caste system in a business that otherwise tries very hard to say, “Hey, what’s a couple of hundred thousand between friends?” What is not hard to say is why Bravo wanted to do a reality show about them.

“They’re looking at life in a very different way, and that feels very Bravoesque,” said Shari Levine, an executive producer of the show, who talked up the show’s use of Instagram-style transitions between scenes. “They’re fun, they’re interesting, they’re different, they’re smart.”

Mixed with its Housewives reality, there’s a healthy dose of Girls about the show, which expands its title term to include not just the young women who unwelcome people into the gallery, but also the ones who flit about openings, which are, one of these types notes, “great for networking.” There’s Chantal, Ms. Martinez Reardon’s partner in her gallery, who is so Brooklyn that she doesn’t even worry that they’re broke; Amy, a tipsier version of Ms. Margulies; and Kerri, who’s already reached the peak of her career as a “lifestyle manager” at 24 and has realized there is something missing from her life, probably art. She hopes to be an interior design consultant for a boutique hotel after all this is done.

“It’s not like The Real World or something where they shove you in a house and make you do stupid things,” Ms. Margulies said. “This is what we actually do.” They’ve each had a low-key summer. Ms. Margulies interned at a nonprofit, and, as they walked to another gallery, Ms. Martinez Reardon said she went to Bali. “Is that where all those pictures were taken?” Ms. Margulies asked. She seemed to have seen the trip documented on Facebook.

“You mean of the temples?” Ms. Martinez Reardon replied, and then smiled sweetly. “Yeah, that’s where they were taken.”

What the show understands best is hate, which gushes in all directions. The first episode is not generous to the girls. The Brooklynites hate on the uptown girls when they’re off-camera (They’re so spoiled! They date guys who go to the gym!), and then, when the Brooklyn girls aren’t on camera, the uptown girls have their chance to trash them (They’re so naive! They always get lipstick on their teeth!). Nor is the show kind to art dealer Eli Klein, who owns a SoHo gallery specializing in contemporary Chinese art where Ms. Margulies and a less-connected girl named Maggie are interns. Mr. Klein fawns over Ms. Margulies, asking if Vogue China can take a picture of her at his opening, and, in voice-only shot, offers to get her coffee at one point. Maggie stuffs envelopes and counts rocks in the gallery’s planters. Gallery Girls, a show about gallery girls, even manages to find disdain for gallery girls. Ms. Margulies, on the show, gleefully describes visiting galleries with her nondescript father and being shunned by someone at the front desk, only to have the gallery’s owner then dash out and kiss the ring. “Bitch, you should have been nice when we walked in,” she says archly.