By Nancy Kalajian

KIND, the name on the breakfast bar, said it all, and set a welcoming tone for NAASR’s bus trip to view the Armenia! Exhibit and attend the Symposium: Honoring the First Scholars of Armenian Art in America, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Setting out on a luxury coach from Watertown, Massachusetts, during a miserably drenching early morning rainstorm on Saturday, November 3, Laura Yardumian, NAASR’s Program and Administrative Associate, and Sarah Ignatius, Executive Director, brightened up the crowd by kindly serving coffee, breakfast snacks, and fruit, with happy smiles thrown in for extra measure.

After the group settled in, Ani Babaian, NAASR’s expert Library Curator, independent artist, and art conservator, introduced a brief history of Armenian art and noted that the second most important pilgrimages were made to the fourth century Saint Garabed Monastery, northwest of Moush, which was founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator. Speaking of Armenian gold, she reflected on the global influences of New Julfa and Amsterdam.

When the bus arrived in New York after a four-hour journey, the roofs of some high rises were visible as the weather began to clear up and participants eagerly entered The Met Fifth Avenue to attend the day-long symposium in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. The symposium focused on various monuments, paintings, manuscripts, and unique items that portray the Armenian impact on international trade during the Middle Ages and its artistic global outreach. Mark Momjian, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Armenian Center at Columbia University, which organized the symposium, gave opening remarks. Dr. Helen C. Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at The Met and curator of  Armenia!, recognized and honored three special professors for their pioneering efforts in starting Armenian Studies programs: Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian and Dr. Nina G. Garsoian were welcomed onto the stage, and Dr. Thomas F. Matthews, unable to be there, was represented by his student, who read a prepared statement. Dr. Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, and Prof. Hovhaness were also acknowledged.

Symposium speakers, all top-notch with impressive resumes, spoke for about a half hour each and gave unique presentations connected to many items on display in The Met  Armenia! exhibit. First, Dr. Benjamin Anderson spoke on “The Great Kosmos of All Armenia: On the Sarcophagus of Isaac (Sahak).”  Dr. Lynn Jones spoke next on censers from Medieval Armenia. A tasty midday lunch of salads, sandwiches, and fine desserts rounded out the morning session and provided an opportunity for socializing and camaraderie as scholars, symposium organizers, and NAASR attendees mingled.

The afternoon program was as fascinating as the morning and included Dr. Antony Eastmond’s talk on “Stepanos Orbelian and Monumental Painting in Armenia under the Mongols” and Dr. Kristina L. Richardson’s “Portrait of an Armenian Merchant Family in the Diary of a 16th Century Aleppine Silk-Weaver.” Intense international research by Dr. Sebouh Aslanian was evident in his topic, “Their Commercial Arms Stretched over Europe: New Julfa and the Khwaja Guerak-Mirman Family of Venice and Isfahan.”  The symposium concluded with Dr. Peter Balakian’s “The Ruins of Ani: From Sacred Landscape to Political Soil.”  The symposium was live – streamed and is available in two parts on The Met’s Facebook page under “Videos”  and shared on NAASR’s Facebook page in the timeline. The Armenia! exhibit book, already in its second printing, will be available through NAASR in the near future.

During the day, there were opportunities for NAASR’s symposium attendees to explore the  Armenia! exhibit. Sonia Dixon, a graduate student in art history at Florida State University, heard about the symposium through Dr. Lynn Jones, one of the symposium’s speakers, and was very impressed with  Armenia! “Looking at an old wooden door, the lack of symmetry in the details is fascinating and shows the artisan’s talents,” Ms. Dixon remarked. “This is a phenomenal exhibit.”

On the bus ride home, if there were a snack named HIGH, it would have fit right in with this Hye crowd, so thrilled with the opportunity to experience the art, history, and culture of Armenia with like-minded individuals in one sweeping day. Driving through the Bronx, eager NAASR participants, energized to share their thoughts with one another, were facilitated by two brilliant young scholars, Dr. Lisa Gulesserian, Lecturer on Armenian at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, and Julia Hintlian, a PhD student in Religion at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Having just experienced Armenia! and the symposium, these scholars were as excited as other NAASR attendees and happily shared their impressions. Dr. Gulesserian remarked, “We were impressed by the sheer number of artifacts exhibited,” while Ms. Hintlian, who has spent time in Etchmiadzin, reflected on seeing some of the items from Etchmiadzin’s collection now on display thousands of miles away in a different environment and setting.

As they fielded many questions pertaining to the symposium and the Armenia! exhibit, their knowledge and instant responses to questions piqued even further inquiry and discussion, and the setting felt more like an upbeat classroom with dynamic interplay and discussions than a humdrum bus ride home. Time flew by quickly as such topics as maps, manuscripts, liturgical vestments and vessels, and the Armenian language were discussed. Sonia Iskenderian said, “This was very interesting. They know their subjects very well, especially the differences between Western and Eastern Armenian and krapar.”

Snacks were again served by NAASR’s kind hosts, and though some people shut off the overhead light to take some shut eye, for others it was a time to further connect with old and new friends or make plans to continue the day’s mutually shared experiences. Anahid Mardiros remarked on The Met exhibit, “It was the first cultural representation of Armenia. It was such a wonderful, organized trip. NAASR should do more programs like this.” Sonya Merian chimed in, “I really enjoyed the symposium. I learned so much, for example, about the trade routes. It was beautifully organized; Laura Yardumian did a terrific job organizing the day. It was a very pleasant day from start to finish.”

Artist Marsha Odabashian, who has a studio and gallery in Boston’s South End concurred, “It’s not very often when a bus trip to NY includes three actively engaged experts. Artist and conservator Ani Babaian shared her first-hand knowledge on Armenian art of New Julfa and Isfahan on the way to The Met. Dr. Lisa Gulesserian and PhD candidate Julia Hintlian, on the way home, facilitated a lively open ended discussion on participants’ impressions of the exhibit and the way in which it was presented. The background knowledge, which they generously supplied, on the Armenian language and the art objects themselves added significant depth to the conversation. Without a doubt, the NAASR team arranged a well-organized, delightful, and worthwhile trip to Armenia! – a very important symposium and exhibition in NYC.”

Danny Donabedian, a student at Harvard’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilization program, remarked, “This trip was a great idea. As someone who is unfamiliar with NAASR other than its research in Armenian Studies, I discovered that NAASR has a fun, adventurous side. I thought this trip was extremely rewarding both as a scholar and as an Armenian-American, and have NAASR’s efforts to thank for that.”

Preserve, Enrich, and Inspire, three words connected to NAASR’s logo, were in full Hye gear for this noteworthy experience.

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