The following post is part of a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Julia Joern is a partner at David Zwirner Gallery, one of the most prestigious contemporary art galleries in the world with locations in New York and London. Throughout Julia’s career, her mission has been to support creative professionals in our community who shape the future. For the past eight years she has worked alongside David Zwirner, who was ranked #2 for two consecutive years on the art world’s “Power 100” list determined by ArtReview.
Since the gallery opened in 1993, it has cultivated the careers of contemporary artists who have pushed the boundaries in a range of media and genres. The gallery represents close to fifty artists and estates, including Marlene Dumas, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, John McCracken, Alice Neel, Chris Ofili, Neo Rauch, Ad Reinhardt, Jason Rhoades and Diana Thater. The New Yorker described the gallery as a "temple to minimalism” which is seen in both the artist roster, but also in how Selldorf Architects designed the gallery’s new 30,000 sf headquarters in Chelsea. Active in the both primary and secondary art markets, the gallery has also recently launched a publishing imprint: David Zwirner Books.
Brett Wallace: How did you get your start in the art world?
Julia Joern: I came to the art world after building a foundation in illustrated book publishing at Rizzoli, The Monacelli Press, and Phaidon and later with Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, which was part creative agency, part think tank. I gravitate toward people who have a clear, singular vision and voice. This is often inherent in architects, photographers, designers, publishers, and artists. I actually prefer someone with a nice big healthy ego!
The common thread across these industries, which has always fascinated me, lies in those who can really build a name or a brand that really stands for something - whether it be integrity, intelligence, diversity - and reflects in essence who they are and their core values.
Over a decade ago, I took a risk and started my own boutique firm where I was organizing media coverage and public events mainly with architects and photographers, when David Zwirner became one of my first (and favorite) clients. He took a chance on me, as I admittedly had very little pure experience in the contemporary art world. He rightfully told me to let them be the art authorities, allowing my own experience to complement theirs. I transitioned in-house full time when I recognized the tremendous growth the gallery was embarking on. Though a difficult decision to close my own beloved “shop,” joining Zwirner was a rare opportunity and I haven’t looked back.
BW: As a partner at a top contemporary art gallery, what does your role entail?
JJ: I consider myself a well-versed generalist, while each member of my team has specific expertise. Building a great team is always at the front of my mind and probably my legacy at the gallery at the end of the day. Together, we are responsible for marketing, publications, photography, research and archives, websites, media relations and social media, public outreach and special events. As an artist-centric gallery, the efforts of my staff involve strategically supporting the artists’ activities as they relate to all these areas, while maintaining the gallery’s own unified identity. I have always seen myself as an advocate for the artists, and more recently as a coach for the staff where both empathy and a continuous dialogue are key to keep us on track.
BW: What is the best leadership advice you've received? And, what does it take to be a leader in a gallery like David Zwirner?
I welcome constructive criticism and advice and seek it out and listen whenever anyone gives it.
My boss at Phaidon (owner Richard Schlagman at the time) told me to make decisions as if the company were my own. I’ve always taken that to heart. David Zwirner is an empowering boss. He paves the way for us to do our “own thing” and take ownership it. Early on he told me that he didn’t necessarily agree with me, but appreciated that I spoke up. He also taught me to hire well, then to delegate and let go a bit.
BW: How do you use social media in your day to day?
JJ: Zwirner’s younger artists such as Oscar Murillo and Jordan Wolfson are quite nimble and innovative on social media, while the gallery has thus far taken a more traditional approach as both megaphone and listening channel. We use social media platforms to reach an international and exponentially growing audience, and also as a litmus test for noticing what individuals in our community are talking (and arguing) about. We certainly intend to be more strategic moving forward, as it’s relatively new territory for the art world. This month we launched on Weibo and WeChat in Asia, for example, but there is much more than can be done to tap into our collectors and clients. We are honestly just figuring out what it might look like.David Carr, the late media reporter for The New York Times, had sharp analysis in particular about print media and Twitter that has given me food for thought as it applies to us.
I use LinkedIn almost exclusively (and obsessively), as does my staff, as a way to mine multiple networks and niche markets simultaneously, whether it’s editors, journalists, curators, educators, or publicists in New York, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Basel, Rio, Beijing, or Shanghai. It’s a natural extension of how my own brain functions on and off the clock, and mirrors what I have been doing over the past two decades, which is pinpointing certain individuals and nurturing those relationships.
I’m genuinely intrigued in what people do for work, and I use LinkedIn not just as a snapshot of a resume, but to interpret career trajectories and therefore extract potential interests. Over the past six months with the help of Sutton PR, experts on the ground in Hong Kong, I’ve been learning about the media landscape in Asia, and how Zwirner and our artists can become part of that particular conversation. Nothing compares to spending time face-to-face, but constantly reading and connecting is part of my daily work out. As a rule, I make sure that every day I “meet” a new person, whether it be on-line, picking up the phone, or showing up at an event.
BW: How you have thought about managing your career spanning various creative industries?
JJ: Before I started working professionally, my education gave me a strong base, as I studied architecture at Virginia Tech where a Bauhaus-like multidisciplinary program was being taught. We blended together design studies, the applied arts, as well as humanities, philosophy, linguistics, and literature. My career within the visual arts is a continuation from there and a constant nuanced balancing act of bringing many worlds together, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. So it’s being motivated by what I don’t know, while still mastering something that can be useful to others, in my case: media relations and communications. We all learn on the job, and throughout my various roles I’ve been mindful of the incredible resources available through those around me, and how I can pull from them. Personally, I am most interested in the intersection of media and culture. I’ve never had a clear plan or path for managing my career, except a strong desire to intentionally be surrounded by creative, smart, compassionate people and vital personalities.
BW: What's the culture of the gallery like?
The culture of the gallery is a combination of three elements: the artists the gallery represents, the beautiful physical spaces where the artwork is exhibited, and the exceptional staff. Each defines who we are.
We focus on maintaining a work hard/play hard environment where people and the overall experience are accessible. This comes from the top, from David. I have known him since the early days as a weekend gallery-goer, then later at Phaidon when we made books with the gallery’s artists. He is the same now as he was then, which is focused and approachable. But a significant reason I wanted to join the gallery was because of the women at the helm, now the four senior partners –Kristine Bell, Angela Choon, Bellatrix Hubert, and Hanna Schouwink – and wanting to absorb their unrivaled institutional knowledge about the artists. As of 2015, collectively they have been with Zwirner for close to seventy years. I think David is a pioneer in the commercial art world, in that by structuring his business to have partners, there is a rock solid foundation that allows for stability while growing, and also being a magnet for attracting talent. It’s the best scenario for the artists and estates, to have that kind of consistent support and guidance over decades.
BW: Who is an industry leader you admire?
JJ: Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, is someone I have respected and admired since reading a profile about her in The New Yorker in 2002. I was working in Toronto at the time, and devoured this magazine even more than I do now, probably because I was living outside of New York and wanted to still feel connected to my city. I have since followed pretty much everything she has done, from the shows she has curated to books she has written and talks she has given, and have been fortunate enough to collaborate with her on a few projects. She is a fierce leader, an exciting curator, a gifted and mesmerizing public speaker, and an overall kind person who always has a smile on her face. Her positive energy is infectious.
BW: What’s an example of an artist in the gallery who has inspired you?
JJ: Donald Judd is a personal hero of mine. From art, architecture and furniture, to drawings and print making, collecting and writing, his holistic approach to his practice arguably remains unparalleled in 20th century art, as well as today. I first studied
his work as an architecture student, his daughter Rainer Judd has become a friend since we went to Marfa, Texas together around fifteen years ago, and the gallery has represented the Judd Foundation since 2010, so for me it’s all come full circle.
The American painter Lisa Yuskavage inspires me in the way she approaches her practice. She is disciplined, critical, generous, funny, uncompromising, strong, and vulnerable, usually all at the same time! Spending an afternoon in her studio is a sacred experience. I can’t say I always understand her work, but the mystery intrigues me. You keep wanting to go back and look, really look. She is also a trusted source for recommending films and books, from fiction to non-fiction. We are both NPR radio and podcast junkies, so we share a lot of listening lists back and forth, all unrelated to art, I might add.
BW: What’s one thing we would we not know about you from your LinkedIn profile?
JJ: When it comes to technology I’m a luddite.