On the twenty-second floor of Sidley’s New York office, a secretary points to a framed photograph hanging on the wall near her desk.
“I think they put this one here because they knew I’d like it,” she said, referencing a 2011 photo by Ilona Szwarc of a girl wearing a pink wig and holding a doll. While some of her coworkers find the picture to be cold, “I see a vulnerability in her eyes that others don’t see,” she said.
The work is part of Szwarc’s internationally recognized “American Girl” project, which explores gender, identity and beauty in the context of American culture. That piece of art is but one of a mesmerizing collection of contemporary photography featuring some of the brightest stars in the New York art scene.
The photographers, some established and others emerging artists, include William Klein, Bing Wright, Dawoud Bey, Zanele Muholi, Jeff Brouws, Gail Albert Halaban, Julie Blackmon, Matthew Pillsbury and William Wegman. The collection, painstakingly culled by senior counsel Cathy Kaplan, partner Alan Weil and former partner Tom Smith, was inspired by the desire to rebuild after another collection was tragically lost.
The lost collection
Sidley Austin merged with Brown & Wood in 2001; shortly thereafter, the Brown & Wood offices and their entire art collection were destroyed in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. That horrific event gave the Sidley art committee of Kaplan, Weil and Smith, working with the firm’s long time art consultant Marion Maienthau, an opportunity to curate along a new path.
The Brown & Wood collection predominantly featured American realist prints and paintings. According to Kaplan, the committee saw an opportunity to seek out art that was truly representative of the newly merged firm. Or, as Weil says, “Focusing on photography in rebuilding the lost art collection was to do something new and fresh – kind of a rebirth.”
In choosing pieces for the collection, Kaplan coupled her experience in art law with her passion for emerging photographers. She believes that photography plays an important role in the firm’s identity in New York.
“The collection is presented on the floor containing the firm’s reception and throughout the hallways surrounding our conference space,” explained Kaplan. “However, it is also presented throughout the work spaces so that it can be enjoyed daily by those who work at the firm,” she added.
Weil said people tend to connect with the works for different reasons. “Take the rock-n-roll photos around the office,” he said. “Everyone connects with those. There is one in particular outside my office by Harry Benson—an image of the Beatles having a pillow fight in a hotel room. That one makes me smile every time I see it,” he said.
A culture of art
The New York office has also embraced photography in other ways to enrich the lives of its employees and the broader community. The firm is a corporate member of two institutions with major photography collections—the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art— and provides admission passes to those in the firm wishing to visit those institutions. Sidley is also heavily involved in Her Justice, a non-profit that brings lawyers together with women throughout New York City who are victims of domestic violence. The organization conducts a highly respected annual photography auction. In addition to those efforts, each year, summer associates are taken on a tour of photographer William Wegman’s studio in New York City.
That dedication and love of art continues to inspire and infuse the office with something special. Or, as one new associate put it, “The first time I walked into the reception area and saw the photography collection, I knew Sidley was where I belonged.”