The Third Lion
Robert Vanni helps protect the New York Public Library
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2008 magazine
on April 1, 2008
Updated on May 27, 2022
“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, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 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 has been providing myriad services and materials free to the public since 1911. Logging 16 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, 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 he’s been with the library for more than two decades, Vanni, 62, admits he didn’t 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 of the NYPL, takes advantage of Vanni’s open door several times a week. “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 drafters 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 about 50 projects in progress.
Vanni graduated from the NYU School of Law in 1969 and has an MBA from Columbia University. 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 $265 million. It has a staff of 3,200 plus 87 branches and four research libraries. Vanni is responsible for all legal transactions, including major real estate deals.
He helped navigate the $38 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. He also oversaw the opening of the $50 million Bronx Library Center.
Vanni calls libraries “the memory of mankind,” and their evolution in the digital age is widely discussed. The NYPL is at the forefront of these talks, one of the first libraries to partner with Google for “a major project to digitalize public-domain library materials,” he says. “We are going through as much of a revolution as in the era of the Gutenberg Bible.”
Although Vanni’s job allows him the privilege to influence all manner of cultural institutions, he knows how to keep perspective. 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,” he says.