Making art accessible via “Gallery Girls”

Bravo and Magical Elves talk to realscreen about attempting to crack the art world's facade with Gallery Girls (pictured), an in-your-face reality series about seven young women contending with New York City's cutthroat art scene.
August 30, 2012

Judging from the blog posts, Tweets, reviews and recaps following the premiere of Bravo’s latest reality series Gallery Girls (pictured) earlier this month, many art world insiders were eagerly anticipating the U.S. cable network’s Real Housewives-style take on New York City’s cutthroat gallery scene.

However, ensuring the art world’s movers and shakers tune in was the easy part. Convincing artists to appear on camera and then getting the rest of America to tune in was the real challenge.

“The art world is a hard nut to crack,” Magical Elves’ co-founder Jane Lipsitz, one of the show’s producers and the daughter of a former gallery girl (her mother worked for New York’s Hirschl & Adler gallery before becoming an independent art dealer), tells realscreen. “I definitely think there is a patina on the art world; certain people would feel that doing an unscripted television show and being part of the art world don’t go hand in hand.”

Gallery Girls is Bravo’s second foray into the art world with Magical Elves, the Los Angeles-based production company that convinced fashion industry luminaries to warm up to reality TV with Project Runway and won over the culinary set with Top Chef.

Both companies are hoping to find similar success with Gallery Girls by transposing a titillating docusoap format into a world that many mainstream viewers might consider inaccessible, cerebral or elitist.

Airing on Monday nights, Gallery Girls (8 x 60 minutes) follows seven twenty-something women (Amy Poliakoff, Angela Pham, Chantal Chadwick, Claudia Martinez, Kerri Lisa, Liz Margulies and Maggie Schaffer) as they attend openings and parties, work unpaid internships, and grapple with romantic entanglements.

The characters are split between a group of Brooklyn hipsters that run End of Century, a hybrid gallery-boutique in the Lower East Side, and a group of uptown, Sex in the City-style trust fund types that intern for Upper East Side art adviser Sharon Hurowitz and Eli Klein, the proprietor of a Chinese art gallery in Soho.

The Elves used their experience producing the competition series Work of Art – which aired on Bravo for two seasons but has not been picked up for a third – in developing Gallery Girls.

Lipsitz concedes that the first season of a show in a new space is challenging, so when the Elves approached potential cast members, she played the economy card.

“I don’t think there are a lot of pop culture outlets for the art world, and the economy has certainly changed the art world,” she explains. “They have to think about new ways to get exposure, find new audiences and educate people who may not know about art.

“The economy has democratized a lot of industries,” she adds. “If you’re interested in building your business, [reality TV] is a fantastic outlet. Eli, for example, saw that, and has been very successful in exposing the audience to Chinese art that I don’t think they would have [otherwise] dipped their toes in.”

Bravo is hoping viewers in their twenties, thirties and forties will tune in, but ultimately execs are gunning for a broader and younger audience than Work of Art attracted. Despite good reviews and a premise involving outsider artists, that series was mainly popular among art insiders and upscale viewers interested in the artistic process.

According to Bravo Ratings, the first two episodes of Gallery Girls held steady at 550,000 viewers, with the series scoring 0.30 in the 18-49 demo. Reviews, meanwhile, have been mixed-to-negative, with some critics enjoying it on a guilty pleasure level while lamenting that the art is secondary to the social climbing and backstabbing, which takes place away from Chelsea – the center of the city’s art scene.

“People are afraid of doing art on television because it seems inaccessible,” says Lipsitz. “We felt like [a docusoap] would be a good way in from the ground level and that would be a more accessible way into the art world. They’re ingĂ©nues. They’re sexy, young, pretty, fun and all those things. It seemed like the best, really interesting way to document the art world.”

When the Elves pitched Gallery Girls, producers at Bravo had already been talking internally about doing a docusoap set in the art world. In addition to the unique niche setting, Bravo executive producer Shari Levine was drawn to the show’s young-women-coming-of-age storyline.

“We don’t often have coming of age series that are specifically about that on our air,” says Levine. “We often see the children of housewives and their coming of age stories but it’s always couched within the bigger context of their parents.

“I especially could relate to it as a mother,” she adds. “You want your best for your kid and you want to create people who are capable of being independent and getting out there and succeeding.”

Though she describes the New York City art scene as “a glittering little jewel” that’s “hard to penetrate,” Levine feels the Elves managed to find enough “legitimate” art world figures to give the show the credibility it needs.

“Because the Elves are who they are, they were able to bring in people with credibility,” she says. “[Those people] are all very much intrigued by showing people the world that they function in. They may have had their fears but they ultimately agreed.

“It’s not for everybody. Not everybody is willing to be on a reality show.”

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