Opening the Door: Working as a General Counsel Intern at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

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By Alva Swing, ’22

This summer I was granted the unique opportunity to combine my life-long love of fine art with my legal studies. I was raised in a household of two artists:  my mother, an abstract painter, and my father, a sculptor and fine furniture designer. I always knew I wanted to work in the arts supporting such genius and creative thinkers like my parents, but I was not an artist. 

I learned about the summer San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) position while looking for summer associate positions in California the spring before COVID hit. I was lucky enough to be extended the offer to work for SFMOMA in spring of 2020, but unfortunately the global pandemic forced the museum and all programs to shutter for the summer. I was allowed to delay the position at SFMOMA so that I could work in San Francisco the summer of 2021. I knew I needed to experience working in the museum physically so I decided to take the chance and delay the internship until my 2L summer. 

Since arriving in San Francisco and at SFMOMA it has been a whirlwind of projects and experiences. I am overwhelmed by the kindness and devotion with which my coworkers’ approach even the simplest tasks for the museum. My boss, Adine Varah, General Counsel to the museum, is not only one of the smartest people I have ever worked with, she is one of the kindest people I have ever met. Working as General Counsel is a complex job which calls for a multitude of different legal skills on a day-to-day basis and Adine is an example of a lawyer gifted in a wide variety of legal fields. 

From day one, Adine has given me unique legal assignments which cover a broader range of issues than I could have ever imagined. I started my summer by writing a memo on Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs, The Crypto Currency Adjacent Art) and what their rise in popularity could mean for the museum. Since the first assignment, I have gone on to write waivers and releases for Art Festivals the Museum is hosting as well as loan extensions from the museum’s private collection. 

The most valuable experience I have learned this summer has been how important it is as a lawyer to be organized and focused on the task at hand, but also flexible to issues which may arise unexpectedly. It is the role of general counsel to keep their organization running smoothly through whatever challenge or opportunity they are facing. I can recognize how much my legal writing and analysis has sharpened over the past two months, and I have realized even more how ready I am to always readjust and refocus to face whatever new challenge may be at hand.

I feel extremely lucky to be able to work for such a major museum and help to preserve and exhibit important art for the public to see. This position has strengthened my belief in the importance of law in the public sector. I am so grateful for the University at Buffalo School of Law Buffalo Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowships Program and the generous grant support I received through the Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Summer Fellowship. Without this fellowship I would not have been able to work towards a cause I am so vehemently passionate about. 

Name: Alva Swing, ‘22

Name of Fellowship: Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Summer Fellowship

Placement: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 

Location: San Francisco, CA

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The most valuable experience I have learned this summer has been how important it is as a lawyer to be organized and focused on the task at hand, but also flexible to issues which may arise unexpectedly.”

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