At home with the master painters

Dora Sallay ’92


Summer 2013

Dora Sallay ’92 is no stranger to travel. As head of the Old Master Paintings department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, her job involves regular visits to creative epicenters such as Los Angeles, London, Liverpool, Paris, Florence, Vicenza and Tokyo.

However, it wasn’t until 1989, when the native Hungarian found herself in Grand Rapids, Mich.—far from her family and a homeland at the threshold of extreme political and social transformation—that studying art history even became an option.

“I have wanted to study art history ever since I can remember, but didn’t have the possibility of doing so until my arrival at Calvin,” she said.

Sallay’s connections to Grand Rapids began in 1988, when Calvin’s Capella visited the Hungarian city of Debrecen. There, Sallay was an English major at Kossuth Lajos University, as well as a member of the local Protestant choir, Kántus. Because of her familiarity with both languages, when the two singing groups came together, she served as interpreter. As the language barrier fell, friendships formed, and Sallay soon found herself with a rare choice: leave Hungary and continue her education in the United States.

“At that time, opportunities to study abroad were very limited for Hungarians,” Sallay recalled. Calvin students “offered their help to arrange my education at Calvin and even raised funds for my tuition after their return to the States. This occasion proved to be unique and fundamental for my future career. I am still extremely grateful for their help.”

While at Calvin, Sallay continued to excel in English, but also began pursuing art history—a field to which she now dedicates her life. From there, she went on to earn an MA in English and art history and a PhD in medieval studies from various universities in Central Europe.

Today, Sallay’s responsibilities as a curator reflect her expertise. They include supervising the installation, restoration and digital photography of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, as well as overseeing their general condition. She organizes exhibitions, translates and edits exhibition catalogs, leads museum tours in Hungarian and English, and trains museum guides. And all this is done while ceaselessly researching the paintings she so deeply cares for.  

“I am fortunate because I truly enjoy every aspect of my job. I particularly enjoy the versatility of the tasks and the freedom I have about deciding what is most important at any given moment. But above all, I enjoy the spiritual closeness of the paintings and the challenges posed by their research,” she said.

Despite her impressive academic résumé, Sallay credits much of her professional success to her time at Calvin. “Studying abroad for years naturally enriches one’s personality,” she said, “and helps us learn tolerance, to appreciate versatility, and to acquire an open and positive attitude.” Sallay cites Professor James Vanden Bosch of the English department for his help with “the initial difficulties” of English immersion and professors Charles Young and Henry Luttikhuizen of the art department for introducing her to “entirely new ways to look at and understand art.”

“She was smart to begin with,” said Luttikhuizen, “but now she’s an expert in her field. That’s always best, right? Sometimes it’s better to watch a student excel than oneself. I’m very pleased she’s been able to do this as many years as she has.”

Because of her experience with foreign travel, since 1997, Sallay has offered an art history course to Calvin students living in Budapest through the semester abroad program in Hungary.

Jen Vos ’12 studied with Sallay in 2011 and had the privilege of touring Budapest’s art museum with Sallay as guide.

“She’s very professional,” said Vos. “You could tell she was comfortable walking around. She let us get way too close to some of the art, and a few of the security guards started freaking out, but she calmed them down. It was cool that she trusted us to be so close to such priceless works of art.”

For Sallay, the course has helped her to reconnect with her alma mater and to pass along the same cross-cultural values it extended to her: “Teaching in general is, I believe, an immensely important aspect of scholarship, as it encourages one to re-examine complex issues and summarize them in digestible form.”