Why I Gave Up My Dream Job

Courtesy of Blue Ride Press.
Amanda Brooks has a fantastic life. She's partied with Mick Jagger in Paris and been featured on the pages of Vogue. And, she's had an enviable career, doing a number of amazing jobs starting as an assistant for the fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier and working her way up to become the fashion director at Barneys.

It's not always been easy, though, and Brooks' has had her fair share of bad bosses. In this excerpt from her new book,
Always Pack A Party Dress, she recounts her experience as a gallery assistant for the famed Larry Gagosian, a man who has a reputation for being difficult.

***

In many respects, working at Gagosian Gallery was one of the highlights of my career, though I was only just out of college. As an art history major, there was arguably no more prestigious place to work. I met hero after hero of mine, and I was always hopelessly starstruck. I started out being the assistant to Pippa Cohen, the girl who produced all the shows in all three of Larry’s galleries — two in New York and one in L.A. — at the time. Once a show went on the calendar, Pippa would set the wheels in motion to make it all happen. The announcement (gallery-speak for invitation), the press release, the catalogue, the celebratory dinner, even the signage for the gallery walls was orchestrated by Pippa, with my assistance. But as luck would have it, Pippa left her job just as I was getting a handle on the scope of her responsibilities, and I inherited her position. I became the person who would liaise with the artists on most of the details regarding their shows — what typeface to use for the catalogue title, who was on the guest list for the dinner, which art-world luminary gave a quote for the press release, the approval of the color correction for the photograph on the announcement, and which piece would be chosen for the show’s ad in the New York Times. During my two years there, I planned an exhibition for Francesco Clemente and hung out in his iconic studio on lower Broadway; stayed with Sally Mann in her Lexington, Virginia, home, eating hamburgers and watercress salad (grown in her garden), and poring over her unpublished photographs; chatted with David Salle about how many triptychs to include in an upcoming show; and got hung up on by the cranky genius Richard Serra countless times.

***

Despite this enviable position in the art world at such a young age, many people who knew Larry Gagosian and the gallery’s reputation wondered how I could work there at all, especially as a young person right out of college. The gallery atmosphere was intense and often harsh. The salespeople were ultracompetitive, the artists were vulnerable, and Larry was brilliant verging on crazy. One minute he’d be shouting at me for not correctly intuiting what he wanted me to do, and the next minute he’d be begging — begging — me to take over his East Hampton guesthouse for the weekend with my boyfriend Christopher and as many friends as I liked so he wouldn’t have to be alone.

And his whole life was work. On Saturdays, when I was working in the city and he was in the Hamptons wondering what to do with himself, he’d call the gallery incessantly — over and over and over again — just to check in, five minutes, one minute, or even seconds after he last called. I almost always told him the same thing — that the gallery was quiet and not much was going on other than the usual visitors passing through. Sometimes he would call back so quickly, so manically, that he would get embarrassed and hang up just as I answered. He was a lot to handle.

At first, I thought it was funny. I’d walk into my friend Tara’s office (she was Larry’s assistant) after he’d shouted a stream of obscenities at me, and we’d just start laughing. I told people, and myself, that I loved working at the gallery and that Larry’s behavior didn’t bother me. But after a while, it wasn’t as funny as it once was, and the highs and lows were more extreme. I can handle this, I thought. I’m strong and tough and I won’t let him get to me, try as he may. Some days when he yelled at me, I’d just leave and walk home. After the first time, I came to expect the surprisingly sincere apology from him waiting on my answering machine when I got home. One time, he even sent chocolates.

Halfway through my second year, Larry’s unpredictable and often aggressive behavior finally began to affect me. I would find myself yelling at cabdrivers and wake up feeling dread at the prospect of going in to work. I called in sick a few times, but when I’d worn out that excuse, I started making more and more elaborate excuses for why I was coming to work late or not at all. I am ashamed to admit that I once even claimed that my apartment had been broken into as an excuse for not being able to face work. And on the days when I did pluck up the courage to conquer my resistance, it was increasingly hard to come down from the adrenaline high when I got home in the evening. My boyfriend Christopher was spending most nights at my apartment, usually coming over around eight, in time for dinner. I really needed that first hour at my apartment alone to calm myself down from the manic energy of the day. Occasionally I would walk home — more than sixty blocks! — to let the stress roll off me so I could arrive home in a more sane state. But one day I took a taxi and Christopher was there early. I’d recently given him keys, and he’d just let himself in. It startled me. I didn’t want him to see me in my stressed-out, frenzied state of mind. When I copped to my alarmed reaction, he suggested maybe it was time to move on to another job. My mom was worried, too, and had recently made the same suggestion.

***
Courtesy of Blue Ride Press.
Then came a particularly bad day at work. A week earlier, we had gone to print with a Warhol “Dollar Signs” catalogue that was to be shown in Los Angeles. It was my job to do the initial sign-off on the catalogue after thoroughly checking it for errors. Melissa, the director of Gagosian, would give the final sign-off before it went to the printer. Everyone signed their initials, and off it went. The morning after the finished catalogues arrived, we looked through them and everyone was happy. The colors were accurate, the text was clear, and the cover looked beautiful. And then after lunch, I heard Larry storming down the hall toward my office. He slammed the catalogue down on my desk and said, “Fuck you. FUCK YOU, AMANDA!” And stormed out.

I walked down the hall, shakily, to Melissa’s office. Melissa was — and still is, all these years later — the head director of Gagosian. She’s been Larry’s right hand for more than thirty years, and she is his polar opposite. She is calm, understanding, and laid-back. She was usually the mother hen to all the young women who worked in the gallery, but at this moment, Melissa wasn’t happy with me, either.

“Sit down,” she said. She pointed to the title page of the catalogue. At the bottom of the page it read "Gagosian New York."

“Yeah . . .” I said, not understanding the problem.

“It should say ‘Gagosian Los Angeles.’ That’s where the show is.” Her eyes widened at me in surprise for not noticing it right away.

“But Gagosian is a New York–based gallery,” I explained. “I thought all catalogues read ‘Gagosian New York’ on the title page.”

“You should know better. And I will take responsibility for it this time because I signed off on it, too, but if this happens again, there is a line of girls waiting to take over your job.”

Of course I was responsible for the mistake and deserved to be reprimanded, but I couldn’t get over the “fuck you” that had been shouted at me. I didn’t deserve that, and I knew it. If it had happened the year before, I probably would have laughed after he left the room, or defiantly walked out for the day. But now I was just worn down.

Christopher was traveling at the time, so I went to my parents’ house that night. I couldn’t sleep, not even in my own bed in my own bedroom. At twenty-three years old, I crawled into bed with my mom and stepfather and finally fell asleep.

The next day, I walked into Larry’s office and handed in my notice. “Why?” he asked. I didn’t want to pick a fight. I had no fight left in me. I just told him that I was ready to move on. But I did tell Melissa the truth — that I couldn’t take the badgering anymore, that the fun, good, inspiring parts of the job were no longer worth the ugly ones. She understood. I’m sure she’d heard the same explanation many times from many girls like me. Or maybe not. But I felt empowered by my choice, like it was the first truly grown-up decision I’d made in my life.

When I left work on my final day, I thought I’d walk home from the gallery on East Seventy-Sixth Street to my apartment on Fourteenth Street. It would be good to clear my head. The next conscious thought I had after that occurred all the way down on Houston Street, nearly a half mile past Fourteenth Street. I kept going. I walked all the way through Tribeca, past the World Trade Center, to Battery Park, at the bottom of Manhattan. Then I turned around and headed all the way back uptown. I wasn’t ready to end the peaceful trance the walk had put me in. I ended up back at my parents’ apartment on East Sixty-Seventh Street. Yes, I walked nearly eleven miles that night, through the Manhattan streets, in the dark, alone. When I arrived, my parents were out for the night, so I just crawled into bed and fell fast asleep.

I don’t remember what was going through my head on that walk, just that it gave me a new beginning. I meditated on my freedom long enough to actually physically feel it. So many of the transitional moments in my life have seemed surreal—too foreign to take in at first. My long walk that night — the stress of the job off my shoulders and the opportunity to start again — gave me the chance to absorb it all and wake up the next morning in a new world.
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From ALWAYS PACK A PARTY DRESS, by Amanda Brooks. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Amanda Brooks.
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