The Art of Law
Corinne Smith’s work has bridged her two passions
Published in 2023 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
By Artika Rangan Casini on August 18, 2023
Olana State Historic Site is a wonder to behold. Its villa overlooks the Catskills, the Hudson Valley—even the vast expanse where the Appalachians enter New England.
Fittingly, it is also where Corinne Smith discovered her love of law.
While an undergraduate at SUNY Geneseo, Smith interned at the breathtaking former home of landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. She marveled at both the majesty of the space and the extensive legal work that went into preserving Olana as a National Historic Landmark, and it was there that Smith realized she could “bridge my love for art history and museums with a career in law.
Smith double majored in art history and English. “I chose the studio track, so the more hands-on creation of art,” she says, adding that metalsmithing and jewelry-making were her medium of choice.
After graduating, her quest to find law schools with specialized tracks in art, museum studies or cultural heritage yielded few results. Fortunately, one institution stood out: At DePaul, in Chicago, Smith had access to the university’s unique Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law, and to the center’s faculty director, Patty Gerstenblith.
“She opened doors,” Smith says of her mentor. “She pushed me to apply for internships I didn’t think I could get.”
From Sotheby’s to the Chicago History Museum to the Smithsonian, Smith had a front-row seat to the complexities and nuances of her area of interest. “Art law encompasses a variety of legal issues: copyrights, tax law, licensing, intellectual property, torts, international law,” she says. “It’s not one specific thing.”
Smith had always received good grades, “but there is one seat at all of these places, and I was competing against people from tier 1 law schools,” she says. “These were dream internships, but it was a chance I had to take. All were great opportunities.”
At Sotheby’s, Smith shadowed a two-person compliance department, sitting in on meetings and proceedings, and attending auctions in between. She witnessed the record-breaking auction of a Persian rug, which, at $33.7 million, is the most expensive ever sold.
Smith got a glimpse into the global, for-profit art world at Sotheby’s, and the intricate ways in which a diverse constituent base, from donors to media outlets, can affect organizational decisions. What came next was a far departure: a legal externship at the Chicago History Museum. Working directly under the museum director (an attorney himself), Smith participated in numerous research projects for the nonprofit. One memorable project involved drafting licensing agreements for the museum’s extensive collection of radio programs.
But Smith’s “dream internship” came next, working in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall at the Office of the General Counsel. The experience had unexpected perks, like a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo’s baby panda exhibit. It also offered deeper moments of global cultural significance, such as examining the institute’s collection of Benin Bronzes. “I did a legal memorandum on them, and the Smithsonian’s legal title to them,” Smith says.
The famed plaques and sculptures once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (now Edo State, Nigeria) but were stolen during the 1897 British raid on Benin City. Although the Smithsonian has legal ownership of several pieces, “there are tensions between what’s legal and what’s ethical,” says Smith. “The legal team’s job is to make legal recommendations.”
In October 2022, the Smithsonian transferred 29 bronzes from its National Museum of African Art to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, a move that “demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions making ethical choices,” Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a press release.
Today, Smith has traded high-profile projects for meaningful work closer to home. “I grew up here, and my law partner is my mother,” she says of Whitbeck, Benedict & Smith, a women-owned law firm.
Smith cherishes Hudson’s “robust and thriving art scene,” and her clients have included an auction house, the owner of an art storage company, and a private citizen working to repatriate an allegedly stolen World War II statue.
In this way, her love of two seemingly disparate fields continues.
“There’s a level of creativity with both art and law,” she says. “Perhaps it’s more obvious with art, but even with law, you have to get creative. Most of the time, there’s no black-and-white answer to your client’s problems.”
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