On a sultry, August day I tried not to melt during my long moist walk from the subway to the Soho art gallery, where I had a job interview. My first interview for a gallery position at an uptown photography gallery had not been a lot of laughs. The working conditions had turned out to be downright Dickensian. But still wanting to work in a gallery, I had chalked up the work-for-free night hours and chicken coop work space to the owner’s eccentricities.
Inside the Soho gallery off Spring Street, the paintings, by newer, unknown artists, hung in spacious, light washed rooms. Though it was an old building, like many in that area of long gone, small manufacturing companies, the space looked new – as though it had been stripped down and rebuilt with pristine white walls, recessed lighting and polished, hard wood floors.
The owner, a young woman in maybe her late twenties, was decked out in just the right degree of downtown chic expected in an up and coming Soho art gallery director. Her dark eyes were keen… cool…measuring. Jeez – where was the warmth? Did gallery owners go to some special school for degrees in “Iceberg?”
She opened the interview with somewhat disjointed questions. After the formalities simmered down, she mentioned that when she had earlier looked for an assistant, she had been so inundated with faxed resumes (this was in the days before email responses), she had scooped them up and thrown them all in the trash.
Oooops…Red flag number one. Actually number two – the atmosphere felt off in some odd way I still couldn’t identify.
Prior to that day’s interview I had been doing on-site design work for an uptown advertising agency. One of the pleasantest aspects of that freelance gig was eating all my lunches in nearby Central Park. Everyday I sat on a bench beside the 59th Street Lake and checked out the ducks and assorted park crazies while reading my newspaper and munching pasta salads. Today on my way to the interview, I couldn’t help noticing there weren’t any small, park-like niches in the neighborhood. So when it was finally my turn to ask questions about the position, I tossed out some appropriate businesslike queries, at the end of which I casually inquired if there were any pleasant, shady places where one might be able to eat lunch in that neck of the woods. Her body shifted into alert mode “Oh, nobody ever goes out to lunch here!” she scoffed, “There’s too much excitement going on! Nobody wants to take the chance they’ll miss something.” And as though eating lunch was mostly a pesky annoyance: ” We all just grab a sandwich at the computer.”
And there we go with red flag number three. “Nobody EVER goes out to lunch here?” As in never-ever – as in make a move toward the door and — crack – taste my whip.
My previous gallery interview had made me apprehensive about seeing this employee work space. But this time instead of going up some rickety stairs, I warily followed the director down some rickety stairs to the basement. Halfway down, I smelled that peculiar old cellar smell of clammy unwashed stone and ancient dirt. And yes, it turned out to be a true blue cellar, suddenly recalling the shivery, musty cellar in my grandparents’ old house that had frightened me as a child every time I cautiously tip-toed in there. Who knew what monster spiders and killer insects lurked in those funky, ink black shadows…WHOA—off in the ceiling corner, my eyes abruptly spotted what looked like cobwebs. Or…could those things be spider webs? Oh boy!
A few old battered desks and computers from another era were pushed together in the center of the room. There were of course no windows in sight. All hunched up, their faces bleached of color, their heavy lidded eyes fastened on their computer screens, two mole like employees muttered hello. Confined to this dark, airless dungeon for the entire workday, with not even a brief lunch break to look out a window or breathe in some fresh air, they could have been called Gloom and Glum. Not for them, the clean, airy, light filled space upstairs. No. That was reserved for the people with fat wallets.
For the thin wallet people, the peon employees – why spend money? Why offer them pleasant, even decent, working conditions? Apparently the knowledge that contented employees were productive employees was meaningless blah blah for both this gallery director and my previous one – the King and Queen of Art Skinflints.
And from then on, my enthusiasm for working in an art gallery took a hike and it’s been out hiking ever since.
Check out Skinflint Bosses on Parade, the last in this series on Skinflint Bosses.