‘Gallery Girls’ fuels discussion of internships in the arts

Clara Bartlett

This summer, Bravo, an American cable TV network known best for its reality content and mafia of “Real Housewives,” launched yet another reality show called “Gallery Girls.” With this both alliterative and intensely innovative title, one can guess what the show is about: girls who work in galleries.

Bravo’s website describes the docu-series as a show that “follows the lives of seven dynamic and ambitious young women in New York City who tackle the cutthroat environment of the art world while vying for their dream jobs.”

Pay special attention to the “vying for their dream jobs” part. Yes, zero out of the seven young women on “Gallery Girls” occupy professional positions they would like to maintain in the future. In fact, four of the seven are working unpaid internships for prestigious galleries and auction houses, all in the hopes of learning the business, building connections and finally landing the “dream job.”

While the business connections and experience garnered from an internship in the arts seem to be necessary components of ultimate success, is this widely accepted slavish mistreatment really worth it?

In answering this question, one moment from “Gallery Girls” stands out.

Looking to get her internship back after a break, gallery girl Maggie returns to Eli Klein Fine Art. Maggie is brought to tears when she must beg to come back to her menial unpaid job. Upon her arrival, Maggie’s boss, Eli, humiliates her by making her fold plastic bags into prefab dog poop receptacles and count pebbles for a bonsai tree container.

While we must take into account the dramatizations associated with reality TV, it is worth considering the exploitative nature and questionable worth of competitive internships.

In a study published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, researchers found that 60 percent of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship received at least one job offer, while just 37 percent of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That’s only slightly better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely (36 percent).

An article in The New York Times adds that “the labor of unpaid interns has quietly replaced or displaced untold thousands of workers. Lucrative and influential professions––politics, media and entertainment, to name a few––now virtually require a period of unpaid work, effectively barring young people from less privileged backgrounds.”

So the question remains: Are the costs of being a gallery girl, both personal and widespread, worth the minute potential payoff of becoming a gallery boss?