Anything worth doing is worth doing well, but who has the patience, energy, time? Julie Castellano, director of Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York City, delves deeply into her area of expertise – contemporary photography – every single day. With a stable of more than 30 contemporary photographers, a relatively small staff of seven, and some eight art fairs to do each year, that’s no small feat. This is her 14th year with the gallery, and it is largely thanks to her efforts that Houk’s stable has grown to include contemporary artists (like Sebastiaan Bremer and Valérie Belin) in a way that fuses seamlessly with the gallery’s already well-regarded vintage modern program (André Kertész, Erwin Blumenfeld).
Castellano has energy and patience aplenty, but even she occasionally feels there are not enough hours in the day. “On any given day I hold a lot of people’s hands, talking to people, solving problems – I love that,” she says. “But I just can’t keep up with emails. I don’t know how to write them short, use emojis.” The gallery had only a handful of contemporary artists when she started in 2004, but she was drawn to the job by the ethos of its founder. “Edwynn truly valued expertise,” she says, “Modernist, contemporary – you have to be a specialist about your material to work here. And if, for any reason, you find yourself saying ‘I don’t know,’ to a collector – well, you had better go and find out!”
Castellano, 47, was born and raised in Smithtown, Long Island, the child of two dedicated schoolteachers – her mom taught second grade, her father, high school gym. Knowing the value of both education and self-sufficiency, Castellano – when she wasn’t playing tennis – was holding down a slew of part-time jobs: coat-check girl, softball-team score keeper, waitress, lifeguard. After high school, she attended SUNY Oswego, where she pursued a B.A. in communications. Halfway through her studies, however, Castellano discovered art history, and all bets were off. She graduated as a communications major, then took a year off to study art history – and nothing else – at SUNY Stony Brook. Donald Kuspit, who was one of her professors, wrote her a one-line recommendation letter to SUNY Stony Brook’s M.A. program in art history and she was in. “I was taking every note down in every class,” she says. “I loved all the stories you could tell through art.” A whirlwind internship at the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery ensued. “I met Jasper Johns the first day I was there. There was no turning back. I had to work in a gallery.”
After graduation Castellano got an interview with dealer Virginia Zabriskie and was hired (over wine) on the spot. She stayed for six years, first as Zabriskie’s personal assistant, then as director, absorbing all aspects of the gallery’s business. “It was a demanding pace but I loved it,” says Castellano. “I still hear her voice in my head every day.” When the time came to make a change, friends told her that she would be an excellent fit at Houk, but Castellano was skeptical, at first. “I thought the gallery, including Edwynn, was going to be stuffy, out of my league, but that was not at all true. He was quirky, funny, approachable, always eager to help, as is the whole staff. I knew I could be myself here.”