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We’re the girl gang antidote to the boys club

The Gallery Girl sits behind the commercial gallery desk in London, or Manhattan. She’s paid minimum wage, if she’s paid at all; but she wields cultural capital and still manages to wear designer shoes (they’re vintage). She’s meant to be seen, not heard; and she pours wine like it’s her job. Oh wait, it is. The Gallery Girl weighs heavily because she reinforces poisonous hierarchies. The Gallery Girl is a dominant working woman type in North American popular culture; and yet her success can only be realized by those with access to higher education and internship opportunities, and she blatantly exists to uphold the myth of the Male Artist Genius.

We are Gallery Girls in so far as we’re women who have been able to forge a profession from our passion for art, thanks in part to unearned advantages: we’re two able bodied, straight, white cis-females with four University degrees in art and art history between us, we both have related unpaid internships on our resumes, and we work in a gallery. That said, we feel like we’re caught between this admittedly privileged place and an all too common sexist attitude that trivializes our work in ways that we believe hurt all. The brand of sexism that defines a Gallery Girl is undoubtedly niche; but it’s not unique, nor is it insignificant as it has far reaching social implications.

In September 2011, New York Magazine’s fashion blog, The Cut, made the Chelsea Gallery Girl their inaugural Style Tribe: “Seeing them behind their imposing front desks or gliding gracefully from room to room with collectors, you could be forgiven for sometimes enjoying these ‘gallerinas’ more than the art on display” (Stella). Thirteen professional women are then reduced to their wardrobe choices. And when Larry’s Gagosiennes were profiled in Vogue, he essentializes and dismisses their worth when he quips , “the problem with women is they keep getting pregnant” (Kazanjian). Of the thirteen women profiled in The Cut‘s fashion feature, there is one woman of colour; and none of the thirteen women photographed for the Vogue spread are non-white. Gender profiling, tokenism and exclusion are not merely matters of representation in these media examples; they are signs of a larger social system that grants limited access to the sphere of cultural production.

To that end, it’s important to note that Gagosian’s fleet of female gallery directors supports a roster of artists that is almost exclusively male. This telling imbalance was the target of artist Fiona Jack’s submission to Gallery Tally, a blog featuring poster designs that point to gender inequality in the art world. Reading simply, Gagosian: Women Are Better Directors, Men Are Better Artists, Jack’s poster boldly protests how women are cast as cultural supporters and men as cultural producers. This gendered division of labour in the cultural sector can be attributed to the tyranny of the Male Artist Genius, which accounts for the fact that while more women study art in school and identify as professional artists than men, male artists dominate gallery rosters and bring in higher earnings than their female counterparts. What’s worse is that the Male Artist Genius hinders women in administrative positions too, as men run three quarters of the biggest art museums in North America and earn over 30% more than women in comparable roles. The Gallery Girl and Male Artist Genius types are thus mutually supportive pillars of patriarchy, an oppressive system that’s bad for everyone, and we need to release them both in order for us all to be free.

GalGalz reject the Gallery Girl’s exclusive, sexist, competitive, limiting reality, and we’ve kicked her egotistical boyfriend to the curb. In partnership with sisters, friends and allies, we’re starting over in our Ultra GalGalz World, an alternative creative space that we mold through our diverse range of community, art and event projects, and on our blog. In everything we do, we are motivated by our values of collaboration over isolation, acceptance over exclusion, friendship over competition, discussion over argument, colour over monochrome, light over darkness, noise over silence, play over passivity, and being joyful over being jaded. In accordance with this values, we don’t compartmentalize our creativity: we’re artists, writers, programmers, event planners, curators, critics and collaborators. Our intuitive practice is as messy and personal as our childhood bedrooms; and the memory of our adolescent altars built with trinkets, snapshots, teen magazine tear-outs, class notes and cassette tapes inform our vision for our Ultra GalGalz World. We’re the girl gang antidote to the boys club authority that continues to bully, boast and badger; and all are welcome because we’re about including based on what we share in common rather than excluding based on difference.

GalGalz and our UltraGalGalz World take cues from Girlie feminism, a movement identified by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, which was published in 2000. According to Baumgardner and Richards, “when young women wearing ‘Girls Rule’ T-shirts and carrying Hello Kitty lunchboxes dust off the Le Sportsacs from junior high and fill them with black lipstick and green nail polish and campy sparkles, it is not as totems to an infantilized culture but as a nod to our joyous youth” (Baumgardner 136). Of course, being Girlie is performative and some label Girlie feminist efforts neoliberal for upholding the ultimate gender performance as subversive. All we can say is that our Girlie feminism is an imperfect, personal response to our experiences, and it feels powerful to us. By seeking strength and community in girlieness, we feel that we’re reclaiming what’s relentlessly cast as weak, silly, dismissible and frivolous in our field and beyond.

Additionally, we acknowledge that the totems and trinkets of girlhood that we hold up are not representative of a universal experience or definition of femininity, and we don’t presume that our nostalgia for secret clubs, dungarees, sticker albums, penny candy, food fights, dirt collections, friendship bracelets and tree forts will speak to everyone. By referencing and regenerating our own girlhood in our projects and practice, it is not our intention to exclude those who cannot relate; rather, it is our goal to celebrate and reconnect with what we were before we were taught otherwise. In this way, Ultra GalGalz World is simply meant to be a safe, hopeful place for all who feel they’ve been unfairly remoulded or simply denied personal freedom by the real world. And so, anyone can be a Gal, regardless of gender, orientation, race, ability or other identifier.

GalGalz is an impulsive and inevitably incomplete response to exclusion within the arts as represented by the Gallery Girl. While we can’t undo the oppressive intersection of patriarchy, racism, capitalism and imperialism that she upholds, we hope there is some significance, value and hope in our earnest effort to create a space for discussion and positive change. We’re friendly activists and we hope you’ll join us, make with us, educate us, forgive us, work with us, walk with us, and dance with us too. Send us your footnotes!

works cited

Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards, Manifesta 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. // Bugbee, Stella. ‘Style Tribes Vol. 1: The Gallery Girls of Chelsea’. New York Magazine. Internet. 29 Sept. 2011.  // Kazanjian, Dodie. “Gagosiennes”. Vogue. October, 2011. 348-51.

Caroline Macfarlane + Vanessa Nicholas

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