Correction: This article has been amended to make clear that Quarles & Brady’s Janice Rodgers helps the in-house team advise donors; Rogers does not provide direct advice to institute donors.
Best known for housing landmark works by Seurat, Hopper and Wood, the Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the United States (behind New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). It’s an unusual hybrid in the art world — it operates both a museum and a leading school of art and design.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually predates the museum, having been founded in 1866 by artists who wanted to operate a free art school with its own student gallery. The 1871 fire that leveled central Chicago reset the city’s cultural agenda, though, and in 1879 business and social leaders started putting their weight behind the organization that would become the modern Art Institute. Today, the museum attracts more than 1.5 million people per year, and the school enrolls more than 3,200 students. Overall, the institution employs more than 1,000 people, including faculty members.
Julie Getzels became the Art Institute’s first in-house counsel in 2003, hired by former president James Wood to strengthen the organization’s governance. One of her first assignments was to negotiate land rights to clear the way for construction of the museum’s Modern Wing, which opened in 2009.
With a team of three attorneys, she manages legal affairs for both the museum and the school. Getzels spends most of her time with senior managers while her team handles the lion’s share of day-to-day legal issues. The lawyers on her staff are generalists who can handle the wide array of matters they face, but each also has an area of expertise, Getzels said. One specializes in tax and bond issues (she’s also a certified public accountant); another in education law and employment matters; and the third in intellectual property.
"We have a huge collection in the museum and works being created every day at the school. Each object has IP rights we have to understand," Getzels said. The department also deals with provenance — the chain of ownership for objects the curators are considering acquiring and for works already in the collection.
Although she and her attorneys love working in a museum environment — "You have no idea how great it is to walk this place after the museum closes," she said — art expertise is the last skill her team needs. "If I were hiring, I’d look for people who are really good at solving problems and who can communicate with nonlawyers clearly. They also have to be comfortable working in a fast-paced nonprofit environment."
It’s common for her team to focus on a major art transaction or regulatory issue in the morning and then a safety problem concerning a student art installation in the afternoon. Art is sometimes said to be dangerous, but on occasion students take the idea too far.
"One student recently built a sound system in a horseshoe shape with a tray of water on each end. The system was wired to play music when members of the public completed the electrical circuit by dipping their fingers in the trays of water," Getzels said. "That’s the kind of day-to-day legal issue we might have to deal with."
Getzels looks for outside attorneys who can backstop her team on major matters. Janice Rodgers in Quarles & Brady’s Chicago office is a nonprofit specialist who helps the inhouse team advise donors on the tax considerations of giving to the museum’s collection or operating funds. Jeffrey Winick of Chicago-based Harris Winick advises on construction issues.
Getzels’ main responsibilities entail juggling the legal matters that dominate conversation at the top of the organization and working with the board of trustees. She also gets involved in management initiatives. Over time, she has built up a system of meetings between the legal and other major departments to discuss problems well ahead of scheduled exhibitions and events. Before she arrived, most employees had never encountered lawyers in their meetings. "I tried to make it clear from the start that we were simply there to anticipate legal issues and not be a roadblock to their work," Getzels said.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Chicago native Getzels decided during a seventh grade debate on abortion rights that the law might be right for her. "It was interesting intellectually, and I also thought, ‘Wow. Somebody will actually pay me to argue?’ My parents were amused," she said.
Graduating with a Yale degree in Russian history in 1981, she took a year off to travel and work, and then entered Harvard Law School. After completing her J.D. in 1985, Getzels clerked for U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery, Ala. "I wanted to go into litigation, and this particular court had a tradition of civil rights cases, which was one of my interests. Also, I thought it was a great opportunity to spend a year in a part of the United States I had never even visited."
She got to work on a groundbreaking voting rights case in which Thompson ruled that at-large election schemes enacted by the Alabama Legislature diluted the black vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act. She also worked on cases alleging sex discrimination by the Montgomery Police Department and challenging the constitutionality of involuntary commitment procedures used by state mental institutions.
Getzels joined Chicago-based Meites, Frackman & Mulder in 1986. She loved the civil rights cases the firm handled, but came to realize that they "had a tendency not to go to trial, and I really wanted to try cases." She joined the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office as an assistant in the criminal division in 1989. In 1996, Getzels joined the city of Chicago’s corporation counsel’s office and later became general counsel at Weiss Memorial Hospital, part of the University of Chicago system. "Weiss had never had a GC, and I enjoyed setting up my own office and getting a taste of legal matters for a nonprofit," Getzels said. Following the hospital’s sale to Vanguard Health Systems Inc. in 2002, she joined the Art Institute.
Getzels has been a member of the board of the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights since 2010. She is married to Ben Fine, who holds a both a J.D. and a doctorate in math; they have two children — Alice, 18, and Adam, 16. "My kids somehow weathered having a former prosecutor as a mom — imagine the occasional cross-examination about homework! They are really great kids," she said.
LAST BOOK AND PLAYS
"I really like novels and biographies, though I sometimes veer off in other directions, too," Getzels said. Her latest: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, about the collapse in the bond and real estate derivative markets. She also enjoyed recent productions of Hamlet by Glencoe, Ill.-based Writers’ Theatre and August Wilson’s Jitney at the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre.