“Democracy and the marketplace of ideas depend on access to information.”
Alexandra Perloff-Giles is a lawyer based in New York City. She holds a B.A. in History of Art and Architecture from Harvard College, a Master's degree in Contemporary Art and Its Exhibition from the Université de Paris-Sorbonne, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Perloff-Giles currently serves as a litigation associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Previously, she served as the First Amendment Fellow at The New York Times. She is also actively involved in the art world and has curated exhibitions at the Goethe Institut in New York, Mains d'Oeuvres in Saint-Ouen, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. She also helped develop the database of works subject to national repatriation claims called the Cultural Property Case Resource and organized the conference “The Legal Medium: New Encounters of Art and Law” at Yale Law School.
In this interview, Alexandra Perloff-Giles opens up about her background in art history, the lawsuit against President Trump that she worked on, and which cases she finds most interesting.
TGL: How was your childhood?
APG: I was born in New York and grew up in San Francisco - in San Francisco's pre-tech days. It was a wonderful place to grow up. My mother ran American Conservatory Theater for 26 years, so I grew up backstage, surrounded by a tribe of theater folk. The arts were a big part of my life, although my brother was the one who became a musician, and I inherited my father’s logical sensibility that ultimately drove me to law school.
TGL: You spent several years in Paris studying art history and then teaching at American University. What do you enjoy about speaking French?
APG: I attended a French bilingual school from ages 5-13, so there’s something nostalgic and comforting for me about hearing and speaking French. I think it’s also true that one becomes a slightly different person in another language. I’m a little less authoritative and less sarcastic and perhaps both more coy and more sincere in French. It’s fun to play with those different aspects of one’s personality that come to the fore when speaking a different language.
TGL: You’ve earned degrees from Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Yale. What did you like most about each university?
APG: The resources I had access to as an undergraduate at Harvard were incredible. As an art history student, I especially benefited from those resources - from classes in the world-class Fogg and then-Sackler museums right on campus, to excursion courses to Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. And the wealth of extracurricular opportunities - including writing for the Harvard Crimson - and the relationships you form with roommates are some of the best parts of the American college experience.
The Master’s program in Contemporary Art and Its Exhibition at the Sorbonne didn’t feel like school, because classes were in the evening. That year was about learning from my classmates at gallery openings, and especially in long discussions and debates we had about the exhibition we presented at the end of the year.
I suppose law school at Yale felt the most serious. The intellectual firepower and engagement of those around me - my professors, my classmates, and the scholars whose work I engaged with on the law journal, the many guest speakers who came every day - was formidable.
TGL: What area of art history did you focus your research on?
APG: My research in art history focused on collage, assemblage, appropriation, and citation, and I became interested in intellectual property and in how artists’ rights intersect with these tendencies toward collaborative content production - a dynamic made especially significant in the digital age.
I covered an event for a college paper that Ai Weiwei was supposed to attend but was unable to because he had been arrested in China, so I became interested in censorship and freedom of expression issues. Law school made sense for me, because the law appealed to the way I think and allowed me to work on these issues at the intersection of arts and culture on the one hand and law and policy on the other. I chose to go to Yale, because it gave me the most freedom to take electives and “choose my own adventure” so to speak, rather than being on a strict path toward legal practice.
TGL: After graduating with a Master’s degree in art history from the Sorbonne, curating several projects, and writing for Artforum, you decided to become a lawyer and study law at Yale University. How did you make this decision?
APG: It sounds like a circuitous path - when I got to law school, I was considered to have had a non-traditional background - but I had actually thought I might end up at law school for a long time. I always liked logic and argument and studying courts and constitutional issues in high school. When I got to Harvard, I wanted to major in both Art History and Government, but they wouldn’t allow it, so instead I majored in History of Art and Architecture and minored in Government.
I spent my junior summer interning at the International Council of Museums, an NGO affiliated with UNESCO that works on protecting and promoting cultural heritage in places where it’s at risk, so I became interested in international law governing protection of national heritage, prohibiting the destruction of cultural property in war, and so on.
TGL: You recently became a lawyer for The New York Times. What is your role there?
APG: Much of my day-to-day involves helping journalists try to get information from state, local, and federal agencies. Democracy and the marketplace of ideas depend on access to information.
TGL: What are the main issues you work on at The New York Times?
APG: At The New York Times, I work primarily on access issues - appealing denials of federal and state freedom of information requests and filing lawsuits and litigating those denials, or seeking access to court records that have been filed under seal. I also help reviewing articles and videos before they are published, to ensure we don’t expose ourselves to liability for defamation. I attend a number of media law and freedom of expression conferences where we discuss legislative reforms we would like to see that would improve transparency or protect journalists’ rights.
TGL: You worked on a lawsuit against President Trump. Can you talk about that experience?
APG: At Gibson Dunn, the firm I worked at until recently, I was part of the teams representing first Jim Acosta and CNN in connection with the revocation of Acosta’s press pass and then, more recently, representing journalist Brian Karem in connection with the threatened suspension of Karem’s press pass. Both cases were fast-paced and exciting because we were seeking emergency relief. Those of us working on the case felt extremely privileged to be mobilized and deployed to defend First Amendment values. Going to DC to physically file the complaint and motion papers with the court clerk in the Brian Karem case was one of the most exciting moments of my professional life. It was heartening to see that our work had an effect - that judges, including Judge Timothy Kelly in the CNN case, who was appointed by President Trump, listened to our arguments and ordered the White House to restore Acosta’s press credential or lift the suspension of Karem’s pass. Now the government has appealed the decision in the Brian Karem case so we’ll have to see what’s next…
TGL: You have kept a relationship with art, you recently curated an exhibition about art and law in New York. How have you woven together your interests in both art and law?
APG: At Yale I helped organize a conference called The Legal Medium on how artists engage with legal issues in their work; I participated in a year-long initiative on art and international human rights where we brought in artists from Alfredo Jaar to Amalia Pica; and I managed an ongoing project to create a Cultural Property Case Resource. I’ve also taught art law at Wesleyan and, most recently, curated an exhibition at the Goethe Institute’s Ludlow 38 gallery called Due Process, which focused on issues relating to criminal justice and penal systems.
More and more artists engage with legal issues, from Cameron Rowland’s Rental Contract, to Ludovic Chemarin© registering his name as a trademark and promptly selling the right to exploit the mark, to Tania Bruguera’s work calling attention to censorship in Cuba. One perhaps lesser known example is Jason File, who works squarely at the intersection of art and law. Jason graduated from Yale Law School, like me, and then went on to become a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He also has a multimedia art practice - in some cases incorporating legal documents and video evidence from the ICTY - that explores the performativity of law and reflects on processes of truth-making and narrative-building more generally.
TGL: Which artists inspire you the most?
APG: I’m drawn to artists who engage with political issues - questions of history, memory, trauma, freedom - all the big questions of civil society, but who do so in a way that is oblique or poetic. William Kentridge addresses the history of apartheid in South Africa and questions collective memory, but in ways that are whimsical, even comedic, and formally stunning.
TGL: What case related to art have you found most interesting in the past few years?
APG: Cariou v. Prince from 2013 was a significant decision for artists on copyright and fair use. What was most interesting to me about that case was the Second Circuit’s decision not to credit what Richard Prince himself had said about the works. “What is critical,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote, “is how the work in question appears to the reasonable observer, not simply what an artist might say about a particular piece or body of work,” echoing D.H. Lawrence’s adage “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't already know?
APG: Zadie Smith.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
APG: Say yes to all the projects you want to do, without worrying about whether they are building in a coherent direction. I’ve tried on lots of different hats - journalism, teaching, curating, law - and everything I have done has proven useful later in some way, often in ways I didn’t expect.