Being Katy Smith Abbott
“Animated” doesn’t begin to describe Katy Smith Abbott when she’s talking about her work. If there’s suspense to be had discussing paintings from the 15th century, she’s able to mine it. When she’s deep into a project, she’ll tell you, hunting down obscure paintings and sorting through unexamined curatorial files, an unexpected discovery is cause enough to scream—quite literally so. She screamed upon finding two paintings, hidden behind a door, on the top floor of the Bargello, in Siena, and she screamed on a Friday in September, upon stepping into Johnson Hall in the Middlebury College Museum of Art, where The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy was set to go up.
As Smith Abbott walked around the exhibition space, she gestured to blank expanses of wall and discussed the paintings as if the works already hung there; in fact, they were just beginning to arrive, in sarcophagus-like crates. An empty gallery is enough to set her spinning rapidly in circles, like a theatre director walking through a partially constructed set before opening night. Indeed, Smith Abbott seemed barely able to contain her anticipation.
Smith Abbott has a doctorate in art history from Indiana University and a perfect isosceles triangle for a nose. Youth is still very much on her side. Despite her 17 years of teaching experience, she still exudes the buoyant energy and unbridled curiosity of a first-year professor. Consider the focus and excitement displayed by a three-year-old when telling you about a favorite dinosaur. Now add an eight-cup pot of coffee.
Smith Abbott’s preferred form of discourse is the soliloquy. She often has to write down what she wants to say, for fear of getting lost in a narrative tangent. To hear her describe the Herculean effort involved in the four-year process of developing an art exhibition is like embarking on a trip through a rather erudite fun house—equally disorienting and thrilling.
This particular journey begins with a painting in London, in 2005. Around Thanksgiving of that year, Smith Abbott’s phone rang. On the line was Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury Museum of Art. Saunders told her that the College was considering bidding on an early Renaissance painting that was up for auction. Middlebury had been looking to acquire a painting from the period for some time—“Until that point, the College owned nothing from the early Renaissance,” says Smith Abbott, who specializes in the Renaissance—and the offering at Sotheby’s was a perfect fit.
Saunders sketched Smith Abbott a biography of the artist: Lippo d’Andrea, a Florentine, working from the late-1300s into the mid-1400s. Smith Abbott didn’t recognize the name—“Because there are [so many] Renaissance artists, unless they’re the really big ones, you’re not going to have heard of them,” she explains—but both the artist and the work, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari, captured her attention. Conservation work would be minimal, and, most striking of all, the wood-panel painting still hung in its original frame. For an object that’s approaching its 600th birthday—well, consider the condition of your kitchen cutting board in 2609.
Saunders told Smith Abbott that a small, liberal arts college museum was unlikely to win a bidding war against international collectors. Still, Saunders received permission from the College to proceed, using the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund and the Walter Cerf Art Fund, and on December 9 the Museum placed the winning bid; everyone involved was a little surprised, except perhaps Smith Abbott.
It was then that she heard a bit of disconcerting information. A distinguished scholar attached to both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had studied Virgin and Child Enthroned, and he disagreed with its attribution to Lippo d’Andrea. Laurence Kanter, the curator of early European art at Yale and of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Met, thought the piece was by a different painter entirely. “Waiting for it to be delivered,” says Smith Abbott, “I realized that we had acquired a series of puzzles. Chief among them was that of authorship.” That’s a delicate way of saying that, as far as she or anyone knew, her Lippo might not be a Lippo at all.