Grey Alumni Spotlight: Career Chat with Julia Drayson

December 5, 2019

By Chantal Chan

This November, I enjoyed the pleasure of talking with New York University (NYU) alumna and former Grey Art Gallery intern Julia Drayson (CAS ’18), about her personal, academic and career experiences in New York City and abroad. Bilingual in French and English, Julia is currently Assistant to the Executive Director of The Willem de Kooning Foundation. Born and raised in London, she has long been exposed to the global art scene, and she began developing her passion for visual art at a very young age. Her interests and hobbies include, but are not limited to, photography, fashion, yoga, gallery hopping, traveling, studio art, and belly dancing. Before graduating from NYU in May 2018, Julia majored in Art History, was a member of the Fine Arts Society’s executive board, and studied abroad in both Florence and Madrid. During our conversation, she revealed how her cultural and artistic upbringing, her contributions at the Grey, and her involvements with NYU’s campus-wide community have shaped her career trajectory. In the hope of informing students who are curious about the nature of her work, Julia shares invaluable insights on the experience of working in arts and cultural organizations.

Julia Drayson, Photo: Margot Drayson

What are your main responsibilities as Assistant to the Executive Director of The Willem de Kooning Foundation, and how does your position fit within the organization?

First and foremost, I serve as assistant to Amy Schichtel, Executive Director—but I also support the rest of the Foundation’s team. Most of my work is research oriented.  I gather and process various archival and research materials relating to de Kooning and assist with educational, exhibition and loan initiatives. The team is small, around 10 people.  Multiple initiatives are always in progress, and I find myself working on both long-term research projects and shorter-term, time-sensitive tasks.

What is a typical day or week like for you?

Day to day, my work changes a lot. Some days I spend researching and contacting museums, galleries, and auction houses to gather information required for records or projects that we are working on. Other days, I attend meetings and discuss tasks for the Foundation’s upcoming public projects—then follow up by performing work that is assigned to me. Overall, the material varies, but the work remains informative and detail-oriented. As a team member, I also have to keep current on what’s going on in the art world. On occasion, I’ll attend auctions, art fairs, gallery openings, and receptions for the works we have on loan as a representative of the Foundation.

What do you like most about your job and what kinds of challenges do you have to overcome?

There are many wonderful things about my job! What I love most is how much I learn from my colleagues and the material we work with. I’m amazed about how much there is to discover about de Kooning and the art world from both written and visual sources. As an Art History enthusiast and student, I feel lucky to work so closely with visual material on a daily basis. I also enjoy how much access I have to the different projects going on within and outside the Foundation. The small size of our team means that I have quick access to lots of information, and that I can ask questions that I could not, perhaps, pose if I worked at a larger institution. In terms of “challenges,” attention to detail is definitely something I have had to push myself hard on, especially in such a small group, where there is nowhere to hide! The Foundation cannot afford to make mistakes, and this places a big responsibility on all of us. Multitasking different projects under these conditions can be a little overwhelming at times, but the great team spirit helps. Overall, I’m happy to say that I find my job very stimulating and rewarding.

How relevant is your work to your academic training? What other skills, abilities, and personal attributes are required to succeed in your job?

As a student you’re definitely pushed to be curious and expand your researching skills. Taking Art History classes taught me how to gather and process information and how to turn it into a written response to a specific question. Part of this process, if done properly, involves precise use of facts. NYU’s elective Art History classes introduced me to the importance of details, the weight and meaning of words, and how to phrase sentences about art in a clear and factual manner. This helped prepare me for the job, because at the Foundation, facts and fact-checking are at the heart of a lot of the work we do. Finally, the skills in visual analysis and comparison that I developed at NYU have been very useful to me at the Foundation.

How did you first become interested in the visual arts?  

I always have been interested. Though my parents don’t work in the art world, they both have a creative bent, and both have always been interested in the arts. My dad studied engineering and architecture as an undergrad, and he was always into design. My mother was a gemologist at Christie’s for 10 years, and she loves jewelry, fashion, and textiles. My parents always showed great appreciation for good, conscious design and visually beautiful objects. They took us to art exhibits and cultural locations around the world. As I grew  older, I spent weekends going to exhibits and shows with my sisters and friends. My two sisters and I took private art lessons in addition to the art classes at middle and high school, and for three years we designed, made, and modelled our own clothes in the high school fashion show. At university, I grew interested in photography, and my dad gave me my first DSLR. Currently I’m experimenting with a friend’s old film-based Canon AE-1. The Art History classes I took freshman year at NYU confirmed my love for the arts, and my first summer internship at a contemporary art gallery in Paris, called the Galerie Marie-Helene de la Forest Divonne, convinced me that I could build a career around my passion.

You spent your last undergraduate year (2017-18) interning at the Grey Art Gallery. Could you describe the experience and how it directly or indirectly helped you navigate through your career path?

I loved working at the Grey! I definitely recommend it, especially if you can do it full-time over the summer (as opposed to once a week), as you can really dig into the material and get a better understanding of the inner workings of a university based museum. Working at the Grey taught me that I preferred working in smaller environments, where I could learn more from my peers and colleagues and take on larger responsibilities. It also made me realize that I preferred academic-related work as opposed to more commercial tasks. I enjoyed translating and summarizing catalogues, and witnessing how much research goes behind the shows that they put on. While working with Lucy Oakley, Head of Education and Programs, I realized that I love giving gallery tours, and that I was fascinated by the challenge of selecting how to present the same information to different groups of people. The experience made me understand the importance of communication, education, and curating of information—and best of all it was fun!

What is your favorite exhibition at the Grey?

I don’t have a favorite exhibition at the Grey because they are all great! One thing I love about the Grey’s exhibits is how varied the material and artists are. The shows regularly surprise me and are always insightful! I adored working on the Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson exhibition, as it was my first time learning about non-fine arts. Giving a tour and talking about actual objects as opposed to two dimensional pieces was a first for me, and a very enjoyable one. Baya: Woman of Algiers was another show I very much appreciated. Before seeing the show, I knew very little about the artist. Her works are so joyful, lively, creative, and unique. I think the Grey’s current exhibition Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection is beautiful and so rich. I studied Islamic Art I and II at NYU, and it’s great to be able to recognize the objects, stylistic techniques, and associated social and political movements. I am also looking forward to the upcoming Taking Shape:  Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s, I worked a bit on the Barjeel Art Foundation Collection catalogue, and I am excited that I’ll have the opportunity to view some of the objects and see the results of the Grey’s hard work!

Do you have other past work experiences that you would like to share?

I worked in two very different commercial art galleries—Galerie Marie-Helene de la Forest Divonne and Gagosian. I definitely recommend the experience if you are looking to get a foot in the door of the commercial art world.

Photo: Vivian Wang (CAS’18)

What advice would you offer someone who is thinking of pursuing a career in this type of job or field?  

Being invested and driven matters hugely, and getting involved in the art world early is also super helpful. The art world is small and tight-knit, especially in New York, and this means you meet people and share experiences easily. As I navigate in New York’s art world, I frequently run into friends or acquaintance from NYU’s Art History department! I think interning at art galleries is always very rewarding. They are small enough that you witness all aspects of the business and learn a broad range of skills. The turnover of interns is high,  so the application process is not as competitive as museums or auction houses (at least based on my experience). Working in galleries can also prepare you for a range of job positions in the art world, because typical intern assignments help develop research and social skills. I also think that starting in smaller galleries and institutions in general can be much more rewarding than larger ones (even though smaller ones might not be as well known), I find that you learn and do more in those environments and therefore stand out more in future candidacies. Taking advantage of the city and what your college or university has to offer is another piece of advice.  New York City is an incredible resource for Art History students. Managing my time properly at NYU allowed me to visit museums and galleries and take advantage of the career and other art-oriented opportunities on offer while completing my required coursework. In my last semester at NYU, for example, I took two classes and balanced them out with an interesting internship on the side. Approaching it this way gives you a good head start looking for a job in the “real world.”

What are some effective internship or job-seeking strategies? Do you have any recommendations for journals, magazines or professional associations that can help students to learn more about professional arts development in the field?

I believe using your resources to the fullest is a good start. The Art History department was great in forwarding job opportunities. It also helps to use online sources such as gallery and museum websites, the NYFA website job listings, and LinkedIn. I don’t think it ever hurts to be open minded when reaching out to people. The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond! Getting your name “out there” is helpful, so contributing a few articles or reviews to online magazines if you’re a good writer can be effective. Finally, any internship, campus organization, and event can lead to opportunities. As an intern at the Grey, I went to a career roundtable discussion organized by ArtTable where I met many insightful people working in the art world, one of whom is still a mentor of mine. Starting early and showing eagerness in your studies and other pursuits goes a long way.

Are you considering applying for a graduate program in art history? If so, what might it be, and how might it further your career goals?

I am definitely interested in obtaining a graduate degree as I love learning, though at this point, I have no idea in what field. To be honest, I am passionate about many different aspects of art. For now though, I’m learning a huge amount at the Foundation and working with some really terrific people, so am very happy where I am.

If you could re-live your college years, would you choose the same path? If not, what would you change?

I don’t think there’s any point in worrying about the past, as long as you’re learning from all of your regrettable experiences and poor decisions. If anything, I would have tried to be more outgoing and taken more time to leave my shell. I would have gotten involved in school activities earlier than I did, because I now realize how much I enjoy multitasking! Overall though, I am extremely happy and proud to have studied Art History at NYU. From an academic and professional perspective, it was incredibly enriching, and I know I would not have had the same experiences had I gone to another school.


Chantal Chan is a Masters Degree Candidate in Museum Studies at NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and an intern at the Grey Art Gallery.