To continue our series of conversations with USF museum studies faculty, we sat down with Karren Shorofsky, former partner at the San Francisco law firm Steinhart & Falconer and of counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop. This fall, Karren will teach a unique new practicum course: Museums & the Law. We discussed her vision for the course and why understanding museums from a legal framework is especially important today. We also talked about Karren’s passion for cycling and her longstanding commitment to serving on the boards of community-based nonprofit organizations.
Q: You earned two graduate degrees: one in art history and the other in law. What inspired you to pursue this path?
KS: I fell in love with art history in college. I remember standing mesmerized in front of Rembrandt’s painting “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I knew then and there how important art would be to my life and future career. The book Beauty and the Beasts: On Museums, Art, the Law and the Market by the great museum leader Stephen E. Weil also really affected me. It made me feel that law doesn’t have to be the “beast” where art is concerned; it can be a tool to help museums do their work better. I went to law school and became fascinated with how legal concepts impact the ways in which museums fulfill their missions.
Q: While you were in law school, you completed an externship with the General Counsel for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. What did you learn there that has stayed with you?
KS: Working at MoMA was phenomenal. I learned a great deal, but maybe the number one lesson was to always be professional in how you approach your work. I was very aware of the need to be circumspect and thoughtful, and how critical it is to keep an open mind. I also learned how important it was to balance my knowledge of the law with the practical situation at hand. It’s nice to know what the ideal is, but then you’re asked to look at a particular situation that might not be so clear-cut. You need to be able to think flexibly and creatively and be confident about how you will follow the law and also make your approach work for the museum.
I also appreciated what a wonderful perk it was to visit the galleries during my lunch break! My mentor, the General Counsel, was great about reminding me to take breaks and look at the art that was at the core of our work.
Q: What are the most rewarding museum projects you’ve worked on over the years?
KS: There are so many. I enjoyed helping the SFMOMA Museum Store formally open up channels for artists to design merchandise for sale. I had to think about a lot of issues here: tax issues, how the supply chain works, how a well-written contract can help with everything from the design approval process to dealing with delays. This all sounds simple, but it’s not easy. When artists and museums work together, all parties have to understand every step in the process so they can avoid problems, and if problems do arise they can deal with them fairly and expeditiously. I was also counsel for the board of the Diego Rivera Mural Project at City College entrusted with the One of the Diego Rivera murals on display to the public in San Francisco Diego Rivera Pan American Unity murals. There were some tricky copyright issues there, especially around how to handle digital images. We worked to protect the copyright and yet still share these wonderful images with the world.
Another project that stands out is my work with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which runs hundreds of museums, everything from the State Indian Museum to Ano Nuevo Island Lighthouse. The legal questions they face are really broad. They encompass everything from “we got a bequest that doesn’t relate to our mission: what do we do with it?” to basic copyright issues around using images – like ”we want to use an image of this object on our poster, but we’re not sure if we really have the rights to it.” I loved empowering the rangers with a basic knowledge of what to do in these kinds of situations and helping them avoid problems.
Q. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the museum field in the last decade?
KS: Number one is how technology has come into the museum culture. When I came into the field we were just discussing multi-media. We’ve come so far. I think that technology allows museums to expand and enhance the museum experience like never before while also emphasizing the singularity of an unmediated in-person encounter with a museum’s collections. From a legal perspective, the introduction of technology into museum activities raises lots of challenging and interesting questions. For example, how do museums handle their online sites that invite members of the public to post their reactions to and interpretations of exhibits or other content? There are ownership, privacy and other concerns that come up in this context.
A second change I’ve seen is how museums think about cultural property. Today, museums have adopted much stricter guidelines about how they acquire and care for this property. But current compliance methods have taken a long time to develop (helped along recently by some high profile legal cases). I believe that most museums were operating in good faith under the older norms, but times were different. Museums held themselves out as repositories of world arts; they were not just the collectors, but the maintainers and protectors of a lot of art that might have vanished. However, the culture of looting got to a point where it couldn’t be ignored. I admit there are good arguments on both sides of what is still an ongoing debate. On the one hand, museums are keepers and caretakers of objects of great significance. But museums don’t want to feed the black market, and other countries and cultures have valid claims to their indigenous works of art. Museums need to be aware of that balance, stay abreast of the law and do the right thing.
Finally, law truly pervades every aspect of museums today: from the volunteer desk when a visitor comes in and says “I’d like to take some pictures in your gallery,” to the worker on the loading dock who says “something that we just shipped in from another museum got broken in transit.” Legal issues come up all the time. So if we can make law something that works with the museum, and bring in law in ways that everyone can understand, we not only set up a more ethical way of doing things, but we also set up a situation where museums can avoid expensive lawsuits and focus on things that are central to the mission of the institution.
Q: What is your vision for the Museums and the Law practicum at USF?
KS: The course is an introduction to legal principles that apply in the museum setting. In addition to a general overview of relevant law and notable cases, the class gives students a chance to investigate, identify and solve issues in a creative and practical way. I’m not expecting students to be lawyers, and I don’t want them to be. I do want them to use what they learn in the class, be open-minded and use their own expertise to find solutions. But it’s also important to know when you don’t know something and to know where to find answers. Most of the time, problems can be solved without things blowing up and going into litigation. This is a lot easier to achieve when people have a general sense of what the legal issues might be, or at least that they exist. In the class, we’re going to look not only at cases that have been adjudicated but also at current events that are happening right now where we don’t know what the resolution will be. It’s going to be exciting.
Q: You serve on the board of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Tell us more!
KS: I love serving on boards and helping nonprofit organizations think through issues strategically in order to thrive. For many years I served on the board of ODC, one of the most active dance centers on the West Coast. I also served as the President of ODC’s board when ODC significantly expanded its campus and public activities. As an avid bicyclist and certified instructor of the League of American Bicyclists, I’m thrilled to be working on the board of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition now. The Bike Coalition promotes bicycle transportation through advocacy, education and partnerships with government and community agencies. We’re working to make San Francisco an even more wonderful place to work and live.