Lawyer Terry Vento: Volunteer work with Pérez Art Museum Miami has changed her life

Terry Vento, lawyer at Shutts & Bowen honored for her pro bono work with PAMM, photographed on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Terry Vento, lawyer at Shutts & Bowen honored for her pro bono work with PAMM, photographed on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.

M. Thérèse ‘Terry’ Vento

Job title at Shutts & Bowen: Partner – business litigation

Job title on PAMM board: Corporate secretary, executive committee, legal counsel

Marital status: Married for 36 years

Children: Son, 28, is a tax lawyer/CPA with a Big Four accounting firm in Philadelphia; daughter, 25, is a lawyer with a litigation boutique in Washington, D.C.

Hobbies: Attending cultural performances, culinary arts, photography, dancing

Where you last went on vacation: Spent a week in D.C. with family enjoying the history, politics, museums, and international cuisine

Cultural institutions usually name buildings, wings and spaces for donors who contribute substantive amounts of money. When the Pérez Art Museum Miami opened, it named one space, its Café Lounge, for a volunteer.

For 28 years, lawyer Terry Vento has served on the museum board. For much of that time, she has been the museum’s general counsel. It’s a job she does without pay, fitting it in around her full-time job as a business litigation partner at Shutts & Bowen. Often, she turns for help to colleagues at other local firms, who often also donate their time.

Raised in Fort Lauderdale, Vento majored in journalism at the University of Florida and interned at the Miami Herald. To get experience for her dream job of covering the U.S. Supreme Court, she worked as an aide for a U.S. senator and decided instead to go into law. She attended her first museum board meeting just days after the birth of her second child. Via email, she answered our questions about her volunteer work:

Q. How did you first get involved with what was then the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA), then Miami Art Museum (MAM) and is now PAMM?

A. It was serendipity. Back in 1985, I was a new litigation partner at Shutts & Bowen, and was assigned the task of identifying an appropriate way to celebrate its 75th anniversary. I learned that the CFA was looking for funding to bring a Picasso exhibition to town, and the firm agreed with my recommendation that it, and some of its major clients, sponsor what became the blockbuster exhibition “Picasso In Miami.” The CFA approached Shutts & Bowen’s senior partner to join its board, but he graciously declined and told them that I would be the better choice since I had passion for the arts. In 1988. I joined as the youngest-ever board member at that time, and have basically grown up with the institution.

Q. Describe what you do as a PAMM volunteer. Do you work with the museum’s general counsel?

A. The museum has never had an attorney on staff because of the expense. In effect, I am its general counsel — but all my work is pro bono because of a strong conflict-of-interest policy in place at the museum. There are some situations where legal work is paid for, but that work is done almost exclusively by independent law firms. The matters that the museum brings to me for advice are a combination of traditional business-running issues, loss prevention, governance, contracts and art-related concerns. Because of my longevity on the board, I have the benefit of institutional knowledge combined with longtime relationships with the trustees and staff. I also have a wonderful network of public service-oriented lawyer friends in several major firms who don’t run away when they see me coming to ask for their help, pro bono, in areas outside of my expertise. I affectionately call them “my pro bono law firm.”

Q. What are some of the questions and matters that get fielded to you on a weekly basis?

A. Among other things, the museum sends me contracts to review regarding every aspect of its business and seeks assistance on human resources issues; evaluation of whether the museum’s intellectual property rights are being infringed; bylaws and governance matters; preparation of deeds of gift of artwork, and capital campaign pledge agreements. I provide guidance during board meetings, prepare corporate resolutions, and interface with the museum’s pro bono and paid counsel on specialized projects.

Q. What are some of the strangest or least expected matters that have come up over time?

A. When MAM was promoting one of its exhibitions, The Art of Vinyl, the marketing staff arranged to borrow a highly decorated 1960s VW van to drive around town blasting music. The challenge was to put into place safeguards to protect the museum while still allowing the creative essence of the promotion to proceed. Another exhibit called for creation of an avant-garde newspaper as a component, so there were potential free speech and defamation issues. Never a dull moment!

Q. How does the museum handle contributions to be sure that they are genuine?

A. Naming opportunities in exchange for payments that are spread over time require a down payment and regular payments in keeping with a written agreement. If payments are not made, the museum can remove the dedication.

Q. What exhibitions at the museum have been most memorable for you?

A. Of course, Picasso In Miami will always have a special place in my memory, as well as the Rodin sculpture exhibit in 1990, which Shutts & Bowen also sponsored. The George Segal sculpture exhibit was very stirring, and one of my favorite pieces in the museum’s collection is his sculpture, Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael, which made its debut at the museum during that exhibition. When José Bedia had his first exhibit at MAM, I was taken with his work and he made a little drawing for me on my program, which I still treasure. I also very much liked the Wifredo Lam exhibit a few years ago at MAM, and a haunting piece by Oscar Muñoz titled Shower Curtains, which is currently on display:

Q. Do you collect art now yourself as a result of your long involvement?

A. No, but I very much enjoy seeing the art that others collect, and I regularly attend local Art Treks sponsored by PAMM that provide behind-the-scenes looks at artists’ studios and local collections in homes, with personal insights provided by the collectors.

Q. How many hours a week do you donate to this museum at this point, and how does that square with your “day”' job?

A. The issues I tackle often come in waves, so there is no typical week. Last year I donated about 300 hours of legal advice, and about another 100 hours of civic time. I often work at night to juggle everything.

Q. Because of the time you give to the museum, both your firm and you personally make less money. Can you guesstimate your contribution in terms of unbilled hours to your firm and in terms of lessened compensation to you over the years? How many hours have you put in to get the new museum open?

A. I would, indeed, have much more money in the bank. How much is impossible to quantify because compensation is a factor of many things. I have tracked my pro bono legal work for the museum over the past seven years to date, which is about 1700 hours, the value of which is in excess of $685,000. That is in addition to the more than 2,000 hours of non-legal civic work I have donated to the museum in the last 10 years. For the 15 years prior, I no longer have records. The firm gives each attorney a certain amount of internal credit for pro bono/civic work per year. Anything above that is considered personal and is not compensated.

Q. You’ve been on the board now for almost 26 years. Why have you stayed so long?

A. When I started this journey, I had no idea that it would take me on this path. As the Center for the Fine Arts changed its mission from a traveling exhibition hall to the Miami Art Museum with a collecting mission, the legal needs exploded. When the new site for the museum was becoming a reality, a whole new set of challenges was presented, and the museum needed my help more than ever, when they could least afford to pay legal fees. By then, I was uniquely in a position to make a real difference to help what is now PAMM become a reality. The museum has, in turn, honored me by dedicating the Café Lounge to me, and by putting my name and Shutts & Bowen on the major donor wall in perpetuity.

Things have come full circle. It began with civic involvement 104 years ago when Col. Frank B. Shutts not only formed downtown Miami legal institution Shutts & Bowen, in 1910, but also became the first publisher of The Miami Herald that very year. Today, Shutts & Bowen, by supporting my work with PAMM, is playing an important role in the creation of another iconic downtown landmark. I am thrilled that my great grandchildren, and those of my Shutts & Bowen law partners, who will visit PAMM for generations to come, can see, concretely, the result of dedicated volunteerism, and will be reminded that we can all play a part in making our community richer in aesthetic ways.

Q. You have two children and a full-time job as a law firm partner. How do you juggle those responsibilities with volunteering?

A. All of the aspects of my life dovetail with each other, and bring me joy in different ways, so the complexity of it all can be taken in stride. My husband is very supportive, which is critical. I now have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight to see that my children did not suffer from the busy life I live — they came along with me to the office on the weekends, or to the museum, when they were not busy with school, sports, and debate team, and I was emotionally there for them at all times. They saw the long hours at work but still decided to become attorneys. They are now smart, caring and well-adjusted young adults. Ironically, I attended my first CFA board of trustees meeting a week after giving birth to my daughter in 1988, and now, fittingly, she is hoping to someday have her wedding reception at PAMM.

Q. What advice would you give young lawyers — or anyone starting out in a career — regarding volunteerism? What are the pros and cons? Should they stick with the same organization or try out different ones?

A. The old adage is true: “Find your passion.” There are a lot of nonprofits that need your talents, and when you find the one that speaks to you, truly make a difference there. You will develop skills, network with like-minded people, and find fulfillment and gratitude. I find that dabbling on the surface in a number of organizations is not the answer.

Q. What have you learned from being on the board?

A. I have learned by watching and working with some of the great leaders in our community who have headed the museum’s board over the years (including but certainly not limited to Bill Colson, Dave Lawrence, and Aaron Podhurst) how to effectively conduct a meeting, how to diplomatically solve problems, how to pull together through adversity, and how to deliver on a promise to our community. I am a better citizen because of it. I have learned so much about art from the professionals at the museum and the other trustees. I have learned from the other pro bono lawyers who have helped out, and am a better lawyer because of it. I have also learned that Miami is a welcoming place for people with a desire to get involved in its cultural institutions, and that one person can make a difference.

Q. Tell us one thing about yourself that would surprise your fellow board members and coworkers.

A. I originally thought I was destined to be a news reporter. I was a journalism major at the University of Florida, wrote for The Florida Alligator, won national writing competitions, was an intern press aide to a U.S. senator in Washington, D.C., and was an intern reporter at The Miami Herald and The Fort Lauderdale News while in college. I went to law school because I wanted to cover the U.S. Supreme Court. While in law school, I was a regular panelist on a weekly public affairs television program out of Jacksonville. It was not until I took a trial advocacy/mock trial class my last year of law school and won the award for the best advocate, that I re-thought that career path. After clerking for a federal judge in Miami, I decided to stay with law (litigation) instead of journalism. However, both call for similar skills: intellectual curiosity, the ability to capture the essence of an issue and distill it for the reader/judge, the use of interview/deposition skills to coax the truth from a person, and the need to dig beneath the surface to get to the heart of a matter. I still mentally transport myself to the interviewer chair when I see journalists conducting interviews.

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