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HUNG(A)RY FOR ART: DÓRA SALLAY

posted by CAA — May 09, 2012

Geraldine A. Johnson is a university lecturer in history of art and associate head of the Humanities Division at Oxford University.

The Hungarian curator and scholar Dóra Sallay (left) with Anne Helmreich, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation (photograph by Bradley Marks)

Rice congee, miso soup, and nori are not usually on the breakfast menu for most Hungarian museum curators. But when I met Dóra Sallay at the crack of dawn at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles during the 2012 CAA Annual Conference, the truly global offerings of the lavish breakfast buffet were a sign of things to come. As Sallay herself observed, “It made me realize just how international the conference was likely to be.”

Sallay, curator of early Italian painting at the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts, was one of twenty international scholars awarded travel grants to attend this year’s conference through a new program administered by CAA and funded by the Getty Foundation. Hosts for each grant recipient were selected from CAA’s International Committee, led by its outgoing committee chair, Jennifer Milam, and from the National Committee for the History of Art, led by Frederick M. Asher. The trip to Los Angeles was Sallay’s first experience not only of the annual meeting, but also of California. Both proved to be eye-opening encounters for a curator who had previously only been to small, specialized art-history conferences. “This was the first time,” Sallay said, “that I was able to hear talks on such a wide range of subjects, including new methodological approaches and innovative research tools.”

Among the many sessions she attended, Sallay gave special praise to the Getty Research Institute’s presentation of its Digital Art History Texts project. She described it as a “cozy, relaxed, and genuinely interactive event, where I felt I really had a chance to influence how a major new research tool was being developed. As a curator working in a small country with limited financial resources, such digitalization projects are absolutely crucial.”

Sallay was also able to hear about the latest research being done in her field of specialization, Italian Renaissance art. She particularly enjoyed Max Grossman’s talk, “Brick Architecture and Political Strategy in Early Modern Siena,” and while at the Book and Trade Fair she saw publications not yet available in Budapest, such as Anne Leader’s 2011 book, The Badia of Florence: Art and Observance in a Renaissance Monastery. Unsurprisingly, Sallay’s suitcases were noticeably heavier upon her return to Hungary, filled with many such coveted finds, as well as new discoveries.

Giovanni di Paolo, Branchini Madonna, 1427, tempera and gold leaf on panel, 72 x 39 in. (182.9 x 99.1 cm). Norton Simon Foundation. F.1978.01.P (artwork in the public domain; photograph © 2012 Norton Simon Foundation)

Sallay was very enthusiastic about the opportunities she and her fellow travel-grant recipients had to take in some of southern California’s world-famous art collections, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the CAA Centennial Reception to the J. Paul Getty Museum on a trip arranged by the International Committee, now led by its new chair, Ann Albritton. A visit to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena was particularly significant for Sallay’s research as she was able to view Giovanni di Paolo’s panel painting, the Branchini Madonna (1427), which she had known only through reproductions. The museum’s chief curator, Carol Togneri, “was absolutely wonderful,” according to Sallay. “Not only did she show me all the files on the painting, but she even arranged for me to look at the work outside normal museum hours and provided a ladder for some productive close-up viewing.”

The social aspect of the conference was particularly important for the international scholars. Sallay praised the extensive program of activities that CAA provided for travel-grant recipients and enthused about making “fantastic connections with scholars and curators from all over the world: South Africa, India, Pakistan. We discussed problems of common interest such as, when curating exhibitions, how to find the right balance between the needs of the general public and the demands of academics.” She also noted, somewhat ironically, that she met a number of fellow researchers from Central and Eastern Europe, such as Daniel Premerl from Croatia’s Institute of Art History, for the first time in Los Angeles.

Getting to know members of the International Committee, who served as hosts to the travel-grant recipients, was also a terrific way to forge valuable new links across continents. Indeed, as Sallay’s official host, I am pleased to report that, thanks to email, we have continued the conversation we began over the breakfast table in Los Angeles—although the next time we meet in person, rice congee is much less likely to be on the menu!

Read about another travel-grant recipient, Judy Peter from South Africa, and review a report on all activities from the 2012 CAA International Travel Grant Program.

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