The Keepers of New York's Treasures
They may be invisible — they like it that way — but the lawyers who protect the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Opera and The New York Public Library system watch over the city’s cultural icons
Published in 2006 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on July 18, 2006
Updated on April 6, 2017
Protecting New York Literacy
“I am probably the only person in the world who has written a contract to get books dusted,” says Robert J. Vanni, vice president, general counsel and secretary of The New York Public Library. With more than 88 miles of bookshelves (and their delicate contents) stored in the institution’s vast Humanities and Social Sciences Library, dusting is no small task.
With its famous marble lions framing the grand entrance at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, The New York Public Library’s famous building has been providing myriad services and materials free to the public since 1911. Logging 15 million visitors annually, it is recognized as one of the greatest repositories of knowledge in the world and has collections that rival the British Library and the Library of Congress. In addition to Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Gutenberg Bible, it is home to the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals (except Roo, lost to the ravages of time). In 1998, a member of the British parliament “served notice” that they should be returned to England, says Vanni, but Mayor Rudy Giuliani would have none of that.
Though this year marks his 20th anniversary with the library, Vanni, 60, admits he didn’t immediately jump at the job when it was first offered. “I was concerned that after 75 years, people had carved out their areas of expertise and they did not want yet another layer of bureaucracy to go through,” he says. He quickly discovered he was “quite wrong” and initiated an open-door policy to facilitate numerous requests from librarians, curators and more.
David Ferriero, Andrew W. Mellon director and chief executive of the research libraries, takes advantage of Vanni’s open door “four or five times a week” to discuss intellectual property issues. “He has incredible knowledge about New York cultural institutions and is well plugged into the network of lawyers, so when an issue comes up he can quickly get some sense of other institutions’ positions.”
Before joining the library, Vanni served in legal positions with the United Nations Secretariat and was the first general counsel of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “Unlike most cities that have different power elites — financial, government, medical, education — the one area that brings them all together here is the arts,” says Vanni. He is particularly proud of being one of the principal draftees of the “Percent for Art” law which provides that 1 percent of city capital appropriation for certain construction projects goes toward acquiring public art. Since its initiation in 1983, more than 200 permanent works of art have been installed throughout New York’s five boroughs, with 46 projects in progress.
Vanni graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1969 and has an MBA from Columbia University Business School. Today, he is chief legal officer for the library, a private nonprofit organization that is part museum and part library, with an annual budget of $230 million. It has a staff of 3,100 plus 85 branches and four research libraries. Vanni is responsible for all legal transactions, which at any given time can include contract negotiation, licensing and intellectual property, construction, real estate, publishing, litigation, exhibition loan matters, capital and tax-exempt financing, and much more.
The real estate demands alone are daunting. Recent projects include the $35 million renovation of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at Lincoln Center and the $29 million construction of the South Court Building at Fifth Avenue. They have also just opened the $50 million Bronx Library Center.
Vanni calls libraries “the memory of mankind,” and their evolution in the era of Internet search engines is widely discussed. “We are going through as much of a revolution as in the era of the Gutenberg Bible,” he says. He says that librarians today will refer researchers to both bookshelves and Web sites. The library is one of five libraries partnering with Google for “a major project to digitalize [public domain] library materials with the intention of having them searchable through their search engine.”
Vanni has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations and is currently a board member of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York. He is a consummate New Yorker and lives near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I love walking around the city and enjoying its cultural offerings,” he says. “Museums are very important to me.” He also likes libraries. “If I get overburdened with what I am doing in my office, I will sit in the main reading room.” For an occasional bit of fun, he will evoke the air of authority associated with librarians, call an unsuspecting colleague and say in a grave voice, “About that overdue book …”
“It always gets their attention,” says Vanni.
When Maria Pallante-Hyun attended the opening festivities for RUSSIA!, the Guggenheim Museum’s ambitious exhibition of Russian art from the 14th century to the present, she could not admire the masterworks in quite the same way as other attendees. “All I could think of was that painting took so long to get out of customs and that painting’s lender contract took forever to negotiate,” she says.
Pallante-Hyun, 42, is an expert on intellectual property and copyright law, which encompasses a large part of her duties as associate general counsel and director of licensing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Prior to joining the Guggenheim in 1999, she was a policy planning adviser at the U.S. Copyright Office. “My husband used to tease me that I had the same security clearance as the president,” she says.
After the birth of her first child, Isabella, Pallante-Hyun left the Copyright Office and moved to New Jersey, where her husband, Christopher, is a high school physics and chemistry teacher — although a lawyer by training. Her second child, Spenser, was only 2 months old when she heard about the in-house position at the Guggenheim Foundation. The Foundation has five art institutions in four countries, including the flagship New York museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. She felt that the international presence of the Guggenheim coupled with its significant cultural importance would be “a good fit.”
As in most nonprofit organizations, Guggenheim employees are expert multitaskers. Pallante-Hyun’s legal responsibilities include advising the staff on worldwide operations and educational programming plus intellectual property matters. On the business end she manages the Licensing and Quality Review Committee (affectionately dubbed LiQuR), which advises which high-end organizations will license the Guggenheim name for use in products and services. Proceeds go to support the Foundation’s educational mission. “Being associated with the Guggenheim is a valuable thing. When we have a partner, we want it to work both ways,” says Pallante-Hyun.
One successful pairing is DesignTex, a textile manufacturer that has designed original lines called “Abstract Matters” and “Singular Forms” for sale under the Guggenheim name. “It made a great deal of sense to work with them,” says Pallante-Hyun. “They make their own designs, respect art history and understand the value of the Guggenheim name. They pay us a royalty, and that is important to us.” She adds that cultural institutions, especially in New York, need to be creative about generating revenue.
Anthony Calnek is the deputy director for communications and publishing at the Guggenheim and one of the founding members of LiQuR. He says Pallante-Hyun brings a “fresh approach” to developing new revenue opportunities that are appropriate for a nonprofit and that support the Foundation’s mission. “She has a creative approach to the problem that every museum faces as they become bigger enterprises and more complex and expensive. You need to develop new revenue streams, but as a nonprofit there is a limit to what we can do legally and appropriately. She has the knowledge to take care of the former and the sensitivity to take care of the latter.”
Portions of the movie Men in Black were filmed inside the Guggenheim’s trademarked circular building, and Pallante-Hyun fields a large number of requests to use it as a backdrop for commercials, advertising and movies. Requests are then evaluated to determine if they are a “good association.” A commercial for the Audi TT was given the green light, for example, while a beer commercial and a high-end Italian women’s underwear commercial were not.
On the legal side, Pallante-Hyun is particularly proud of the intellectual property policies she has worked hard to instill these last seven years. “People call us now for policy questions. I know we have great contracts in place,” she says. “Our boilerplate contracts, policies and procedures are well covered.” She is also focused on working through a whole new wave of legalities ushered in by the emergence of Internet art and new media.
When away from the Guggenheim, Pallante-Hyun enjoys cooking, gardening, reading, hiking, skiing and coaching her daughter’s softball team. Though she is not an art collector, her tenure at the Guggenheim has heightened her respect for the art world overall and for how difficult it is for museums to fulfill their mission of educating people and giving them new reasons to visit.
“What I love about the Guggenheim is the desire to be innovative and think outside the box,” she says. “Even though we are under-resourced and staff is required to wear many hats and there is not enough time in the day, this institution expects the best. That is the standard everyone is reaching for. I have uncommonly smart colleagues across the board. They share that vision of excellence.”
Sharon E. Grubin loves animals, which is why she can forgive a goat named Lulu for munching on a pile of contracts in her office at The Metropolitan Opera. As general counsel of one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, she regularly addresses the needs of thousands of employees and performers, including the four-legged variety. Lulu was appearing in a production of War and Peace, and was with her trainer at the time she decided to sniff out a meal. “It’s a great way to clean up your office,” jokes Grubin, who says Lulu ingested only a few snippets before she was marched back to rehearsal.
The Metropolitan Opera welcomes 895,000 visitors to more than 220 performances each year. It requires 925 full-time employees and approximately 2,200 part-time and seasonal workers to keep the curtain going up each night. “My goal is to make sure things run smoothly for the people who create the artistic product,” she says, “so they can do their planning, rehearsing and all else they must do without having to worry about the many business and legal issues involved in getting that performance on the stage. I feel I’m doing my job if I can do that for them so they can devote themselves to what is our ‘product,’ if you will.”
Grubin, 57, acquired a love of music from her mother, whom she describes as “a true music person; she could play by ear and had a gorgeous voice.” Though Grubin did not pursue a career in music — she majored in American studies at Smith College — she did earn a minor in music. After graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1973, she worked at White & Case in New York and later served 16 years as a U.S. Magistrate judge in the Southern District of New York.
By 2000, after two terms on the bench, Grubin was ready to reconnect with her musical roots and learned that the position of in-house lawyer at The Met was open. “I interviewed the next day and was offered the job,” she says. “Who could say no?” Though she says her job is difficult to describe, at any given time she could be called upon to handle any legal matters including litigation, contracts, donor and other financial transactions, board and governance matters, labor and employment, tax and immigration, and much more.
K. Ann McDonald of Robinson & McDonald first met Grubin in 1979 and was instantly impressed by her professional ethics. “She is an honest person and that helps a lot when you are a lawyer,” McDonald says. A good lawyer, says McDonald, is somebody who can be relied on by the other side and understands the art of compromise. She says this “rare combination of skills” is particularly true of Grubin, whom she also calls “a wonderful litigator.”
These skills are also key for a cultural institution like The Met, which needs to maintain good will toward both the public and its employees. That said, one of Grubin’s more difficult tasks when she started was to have people learn not to be afraid to come to her. “Lay people believe, often correctly, that a lawyer will tell them they cannot do what they want to do because it is illegal or too risky,” she says. “I may do that, but not without finding another way for them to achieve what they want. I like to figure out ways to overcome problems and put things together.”
Figuring out problems in an art form known for supersized egos requires a reservoir of calm and patience, something Grubin acquired during her years as a judge. “You see it all on the bench and you don’t get excited,” she says. “There is a solution to every problem.” Besides dealing with 18 unions and 21 collective-bargaining agreements, she has been called upon to explain to an irate Russian singer that taxes must be taken out of his check, and to read through late artist Marc Chagall’s letters to The Met, in French, to find out if The Met owns the famous Chagall paintings in the lobby. They do.
Though she will not reveal any peccadilloes regarding opera’s boldface names, she brightens at the mention of superstar tenor Plácido Domingo, whom she calls “absolutely delightful.” This year she will continue working with retiring general manager Joe Volpe and incoming general manager Peter Gelb through the transition.
In what little spare time she has, Grubin enjoys hiking at her country home in upstate New York, playing the piano and taking music theory classes at the Juilliard School. And, yes, she does attend the opera. “When I first came here, if you told me I would sit through all [18 hours, 53 minutes] of the Ring Cycle, I would have said you are out of your mind. Two years ago, I watched it and loved it.”