What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?: ‘Art Breakers’ and the Art World’s Reality TV Problem

Carol Lee Brosseau (left) and Miller Gaffney (right) of Art Breakers. SAM HON

Carol Lee Brosseau (left) and Miller Gaffney (right) of Art Breakers.


There have been two former attempts to translate the art world into a successful reality television series. Work of Art, which debuted in 2010 and ran for two seasons on Bravo, had up-and-coming artists compete for a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (“the world famous Brooklyn Museum,” in the show’s parlance) and a cash prize of $100,000. Each week, contestants made work focused on a theme (“Create a work of art based on your Audi experience,” etc.). A panel of judges that included the dealer (and contributor to this magazine) Bill Powers and New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz assessed their creations. Work of Art was something of a rewriting of an earlier show, Artstar, in which artists competed to participate in a group exhibition at the gallery Deitch Projects, which I don’t count as an attempt because the show was more of an extended commercial for Jeffrey Deitch, that gallery’s owner. Work of Art’s main legacy has proven to be the addition of 100,000 or so followers to Saltz’s various social-media accounts.

The next attempt, which also aired on Bravo, was Gallery Girls. The show featured “seven women trying to make it in the cutthroat New York City art world.” A suspicious number of them either worked at a high-end boutique called End of Century or were interns at Klein Sun Gallery (huh?), then located in SoHo, a neighborhood that in 2012, when the show aired, was more of a historic outpost of the New York art world, with most of the galleries there having decamped to other areas in the city during the previous decade. Klein Sun moved to Chelsea after the show was canceled after one season. One of the women on the show, according to a “Where Are They Now” feature on Bravo’s web site, became a real-estate agent in Florida.

Into this Götterdämmerung stumbles Art Breakers, which premieres this month on Ovation. (The network’s motto is “Art Everywhere.”) The title, and it pains me to have to spell this out, appears to be a pun on “heartbreakers,” which itself—I suppose—is in reference to the fact that the two stars of the series are female and blond. Better than the woefully demeaning Gallery Girls, or that series’ original title, Paint the Town, but Jesus. The Art Breakers’ names are Carol Lee Brosseau and Miller Gaffney. They are former sorority sisters from Baylor University (alma mater of Rand Paul) and graduates of the Sotheby’s Institute (from which at least one Gallery Girls alumnus has graduated as well), and they work in that murkiest of professional fields, art advising. In the third episode, when Brosseau and Gaffney are trying to talk a prospective client into letting them buy the art for the “corporate office for a really important juicing company,” the two lay out what it is they do, exactly.

Brosseau: Just like you would use a financial advisor to invest your money because of their knowledge and expertise, we do the same thing. We watch the art market and we’re going to help you make smart investments with your money.

Gaffney: We’re looking at who’s hot, who’s increased in value, the latest auction records—we do this every day. Basically, we’re gonna make you a lot of money.

The art advisor is a bit of a grab bag of roles—curator, interior designer, dealer, buyer. The line dividing these roles is ever hazier because the sole aim of nearly every art professional is to make a lot of money, and many of them do. Let’s think of advisors as opportunistic personal shoppers for the culturally aspirational, or, for those inclined to see their collections as a future financial investment, something like a hedge-fund manager, using art as capital.

The most common refrain of advisors, though, is that they provide “access.” “The most important thing an art advisor can provide is access,” the advisor Mark Fletcher told the New York Times in 2006. Brosseau reiterated this point to me in a brief phone conversation before her show aired. “I think the art world can be intimidating to people not in it,” she said. “And people don’t feel confident trying to enter into it. We’re hoping to inspire people to feel a little bit more welcome.” The notion of giving people access to the art world is the default sales pitch of a variety of recent art-world business ventures, most of them run by advisors like Brosseau and Gaffney, and it is both condescending and accurate. By selling the need for access, advisors merely perpetuate the notion of insularity. All in all, not a terrible business model.

As for the show, what can I say? The first episode features the following voice-over introduction from our stars:

Brosseau: Buying art is not for the faint of heart.

Gaffney: It’s a multibillion-dollar industry…

Brosseau: …and the biggest party around. The art world is our world.

Gaffney: Cuba! Vegas! Hollywood?

Brosseau: We travel the globe in search of the chicest galleries and hottest artists.

And so forth. With the exception of Jack Shainman—a dealer of great American artists, including Nick Cave, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems—whose brief appearance on this show is, as far as I can tell, a low point in his career, I’ve never heard of most of the “chicest” galleries nor of almost any of the “hottest” artists. (This isn’t to say that I’m the last word on the contemporary canon, or that these people aren’t perfectly nice, but hey, I also watch the art market every day, to paraphrase my subjects. I want a TV show, too!) One of my favorite moments on Art Breakers comes when Brosseau and Gaffney walk into a Los Angeles gallery called Kopeikin Gallery (I have never heard of it) and inquire about a photograph by an artist named Blake Little (I have never heard of him). They have the following exchange with a gallery employee.

Brosseau: Is that Blake Little?

Gallery Employee: Yeah, he dumps ten gallons of honey on each of his models.

Brosseau: That’s so hot.

Gaffney: He is the most cutting edge—he is hot right now.

Gallery Employee: He’s super hot.

So incredibly hot and cutting edge! On their journey through this sludge of mediocrity, Brosseau and Gaffney situate themselves as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of selling art. Their characters are comically underdeveloped: Brosseau is married and likes to wear black clothing. Gaffney is single (“I have a lot of international boyfriends,” she says) and likes to wear pastel colors. Gaffney’s Southern accent is thicker than Brosseau’s Southern accent. Of their personalities, I have nothing else to add.

The first episode features a tepid celebrity cameo from Mario Lopez, plugging his tequila company. He hires Brosseau and Gaffney to commission a work to promote the drink. “I want art,” he tells them. “I want a piece of art.” In a series of tasks that includes scrolling through images on an iPad and other light labor that is too dull to address here, Brosseau and Gaffney oblige. (The artist from whom they commission a work is a commercial photographer named Sam Hon. I have never heard of him.) In another episode, Brosseau and Gaffney buy art for a room in the mansion of Brad and Kimberly Friedmutter, an architect of Las Vegas hotels and a “life manager,” respectively. One work they purchase is a glittery butterfly wall piece that has written on it the phrase “Your life is unfolding according to the divine plan.” No, thank you! The main source of drama in a later episode is that the owner of the aforementioned “really important juicing company” buys a photograph for his office without consulting Brosseau and Gaffney first. I mention all of this merely to demonstrate that every second of the series is inane, and watching it made me feel mostly nothing.

Of course, reality TV is inane by design, and what I appreciate about the form is that it provides me with some kind of substantive proof that life is supposed to be unbearably meaningless, and that any indication otherwise is both fleeting and a mistake. My point is that there is a fine amount of existential horror nestled somewhere in between the contradictory words “reality” and “television.” A lot of reality TV, however accidentally, manages to mine the depths of this misery with its wholesale fascination in stock characters trading in stalled careers (Brett Michaels, etc.), desperate grabs at being noticed (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), and useless and misguided attempts at falling in love (Brett Michaels again, for some reason, and also The Bachelor and its numerous spinoffs).

So why hasn’t the art world done well on television? It is equally obsessed with third-rate celebrity (James Franco et al) and desperately insecure about its popularity, or lack thereof (hence the acceptance of all the third-rate celebrities). Contemporary art and reality TV should be kindred spirits. But I suspect that any art world personality charming or evil or ridiculous enough to fit into a reality-television archetype that might carry a series—the quirky family man with a possibly psychotic secret life (Jeff Koons), the attention-starved hanger-on (Klaus Biesenbach), the guy who didn’t come here to make friends (Larry Gagosian)—doesn’t have enough to gain by participating. And, unfortunately, watching rich people get richer just isn’t very interesting.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”

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