It’s a cold winter’s day in Manhattan, and Julia Joern is looking out the window, searching for the right way to describe how she got to her present position as partner in the David Zwirner Gallery, where she oversees a staff of 20 and a cadre of projects (including an in-house publishing concern, Zwirner Books). “Fluke? No, that’s not the right word,” she says, shaking her head. True. “Fluke” doesn’t describe the shrewd decisions Joern has made over her career as a PR and marketing specialist, first in the architecture book trade, and later in visual-arts communications. She has connected dots across disciplines and fostered unlikely and profitable collaborations between decision-makers and creatives. “Curiosity” might be a better word. A voracious reader, Joern spends two hours reading every morning before she gets to work. She credits her Virginia Tech literature professor Robert Siegle with passing on this unlikely recipe for success. “’Read everything, do everything, know everything,’ he used to say,” recalls Joern, “and I’d add to that ‘see every photo show.’ Then you’ll know what needs to be done, and the path will make itself clear.”
Joern, 47, is easygoing, free of makeup, simply dressed. She was born in Cincinnati, but her family relocated to the New Jersey suburbs when she was two years old. She had little exposure to the arts, save for a photographer uncle. “He had a loft in the city, and a darkroom in his bathroom, and I thought that was pretty cool,” she says. A visit to her older brother in Virginia convinced her that Virginia Tech would nurture her natural curiosity, and she got her B.A. in architecture there.
Her first self-described “big break” was a job in Rizzoli’s publicity department. There, she learned the craft of writing and the importance of uniting the press with the materials they’d need to get their job done. At New York’s Monacelli Press from 1994 to 1997, she expanded her ken to photojournalism (including two books by Alex Webb) and knocked on doors at places like Time and Newsweek with galleys of Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL. From 1997 to 2000, she was working for Phaidon on photojournalistic projects like James Nachtwey’s Inferno while launching the firm’s New York headquarters with Mary Albi. Shifting her focus to the graphic design world for the next two years at Bruce Mau’s legendary Toronto studio cemented her vision. “I learned a PR person is part advocate, part protector,” she says, “but mostly I learned that you can leave New York, and it will still be there when you come back.”
In 2003 she returned to New York and founded Julia Joern Communications, which had some influential clients (Bruce Davidson, Mark Seliger). But her first, and favorite, was David Zwirner. A three-month contract turned into 10 years of work, the last eight exclusively for Zwirner (and the last two as partner). When we spoke, she was putting out a book by R. Crumb, promoting events for Stan Douglas, and paving a communications strategy with Asia (where Zwirner is planning his next commercial gallery presence). “WeiBo and WeChat are the prominent social-media platforms in Asia, so we’ve come to adopt those as well,” says Joern. “It’s fascinating to learn how we are the same, but different.”