In Profile

Julie Saul

BY Sarah Schmerler, September 1, 2011

What might have happened if you had given in to kismet—really let it influence your life? You landed a sweet job in the arts (your chosen profession) days after graduating college. Several years later, you found a perfect apartment in Manhattan for dirt cheap. You’d have had the good sense to work with people you love and entered into a business partnership with someone you trusted. By now you’d probably be feeling pretty sanguine about your accomplishments, no matter the economy. That’s what Julie Saul did. What’s more, this summer she’s hung an exhibition that distills a quarter-century of all the shows by photo- and non-photo-based artists she’s exhibited as a contemporary art dealer, including The New Yorker’s Roz Chast, Bill Jacobson and James Welling. The art market fluctuates, but things look pretty good from where Saul sits in her office bordering Chelsea’s High Line. “There’s not a huge disconnect between my work and what concerns me in life,” says Saul. “I get up every day and read the paper thoroughly. I try to show work by artists who I feel aren’t derivative of other artists, who engage with issues I think are relevant and meaningful. I feel very non-strategic and intuitive in what I do.”

Saul—vibrant and tan—has the twinkle in her eye of a young Shirley MacLaine that belies her 56 years. Growing up in Tampa, Florida, in the ’60s, she was a self-described happy kid from a normal household in which her design-loving mom introduced her to culture, and her well-traveled grandparents showed her the joys of music. “I went to concerts, partied a lot, hung out, rode my bike,” she says. She chose Tulane when she went to college, because “that was where my sister and my best friends went, and I loved New Orleans.” In 1976, B.A. in hand (with a dual major in art history and English) Saul left the Big Easy “with no idea of what I wanted to do.” As fate would have it, her mom had heard the week before about an opening for assistant director at the Tampa Bay Art Center. Saul graduated on a Sunday, arrived home on Thursday, interviewed on Friday and started on Monday. Salary: $5,000 a year. Life outside the office: sweet, spent in an apartment complex with jalousie windows for air conditioning, good girlfriends for neighbors, parties, and the water right outdoors. Saul worked on cutting-edge exhibitions with the likes of Vito Acconci, Barry Le Va, and Mel Bochner, learning and immersing herself in curating. Three years later, in 1979, after having assumed the role of director, Saul left Florida and enrolled in NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts in New York. Saul completed her studies with thesis advisor Kirk Varnedoe, focusing on the Bauhaus and László Maholy-Nagy. Eventually, the exigencies of living in the city convinced her that starting a business with good friend Nancy Lieberman was the next step. They started out dealing privately in 1984: early color photography by Andrew Bush, and soon thereafter, Zeke Berman, Lori Novak, Sally Gall. Saul raised $50,000, moved Lieberman & Saul to a public space in SoHo, and set about showcasing tight outside curatorial turns by the likes of Ingrid Schaffner, Paul Laster, and Renée Riccardo as well as their own eclectic stable. In 1991, Lieberman moved to Los Angeles, and in 2000, Saul moved to her current location on West 22nd Street. “At times I feel extremely nostalgic for the early days in SoHo,” she says. “When I made a sale there was one restaurant to celebrate, and one boutique to buy an outfit. Things never stay the same, but in New Orleans they’ve got a better way of marking time. Laissez les bons temps rouler, they say, ‘Let the good times roll.’”