As I sat across from Annie Labatt, her bright, blue eyes were glimmering with passion as she described the recent success of her lecture at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA).
It was standing room only for the first installment of the nine-part series last month. More than 250 people packed the 175-seat auditorium. That’s right, for an art history lecture. SAMA will be offering an encore of the first lecture tonight at 5:30 p.m.
She continued in vivid detail, describing the beauty of Byzantium — an ancient Grecian city (modern Istanbul). Her research on the city’s art and Altamira, Spanish prehistoric cave paintings, earned her a Ph.D from Yale University. Altamira is where Art History 101 begins.
“If I can create some sort of grand narrative through a selection of masterpieces in art history, then people will inevitably be inspired,” said Labatt. “Whether it’s seeing a show, or visiting a museum or just having a conversation about something beautiful with someone you’ve never met before, if any of those things happen, then this series will have been a success. So, to everyone, I would say, come make new connections, develop a new community, have a glass of wine with people you don’t know and ask someone, ‘What inspires you?’”
An engaging communicator – she might be one of the most enthusiastic hand-talkers I’ve met – Labatt described her journey through the world of art history, from New York, to Italy, Chicago and Washington D.C. She told me about the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), her infatuation with Roman architecture and Byzantine monasteries in the Sinai desert.
Now, Labatt is back home in San Antonio, and we’re fortunate to have her.
Well, fortune is part of it, but it’s also an example of San Antonio’s brain gain trend. Her story demonstrates what economic geographer James Russell describes as “return migration,” people coming back to live in their home-city after successfully venturing off into the world as young adults. When they do come back, they bring passion, intelligence, college-educated spouses – and eventually their friends – with them.
“New York was great, but it just wasn’t home,” she said. So when she was offered a faculty position at UTSA, she naturally accepted. “(And) everyone here is so welcoming and enthusiastic and bursting with energy.”
Labatt, whose well known family is from here, is looking to stay for a while. She’s a professor of art history and criticism at UTSA, lectures at SAMA and her continual mission is to collaborate around town to enhance and magnify the artistic vision and scope of the community.
I’ve got to admit that as she talked, I caught the bug — her love for art history is contagious.
A graduate of the prestigious, private college preparatory St. Mary’s Hall, Labatt recalled how her journey began.
“It started in high school. I developed a sort of ‘crush’ on medieval history. It was my teacher’s fault,” she said with a laugh, then continued seriously. “A good teacher leads you in a certain direction and it kind of sticks with you. Their passion becomes your passion.”
For Labatt, that teacher was Mr. Wiswall, the man she credited for changing the direction of her life.
“I’d trained my entire life to become a professional ballerina and I thought that’s where I was headed,” Labatt said.
She recounted the years of discipline, school in the morning, ballet in the evening and the consideration of which professional companies throughout the country she would audition for after high school.
“When Mr. Wiswall came on the scene, I started to question where my life was headed,” Labatt said. “I’d found something new that I loved and knew I needed to pursue it. A good teacher can change your life. I try to carry that with me today through my teaching. How can I connect with these students, connect them with the realm of art history? How can I engage them?”
Labatt easily recalled how she first became engaged in the world of art history. “Making the jump from history to art history was a no-brainer,” she said. She described an art history class at Barnard Liberal Arts College for Women in New York City as the catalyst for moving in that direction. “I knew I wanted to pursue that.”
So, after her freshman year at Barnard, Labatt contacted an alumnus of the school living in Italy. Determined to pursue her newfound passion, Labatt lived in Rome for a couple of months and eventually landed a job as an English-speaking tour guide.
“I was walking through the streets, looking up at these incredible buildings, these beautiful cathedrals, churches … everywhere I went, I was engaging with history,” she said. “I would think, ‘These columns were erected during this period in history, those pillars were erected during that point in history.’ It was stunning. It’s everywhere.”
The inevitable return to the U.S. carried with it a sense of incompletion for Labatt. So, during the next three years of undergraduate school, she returned to Rome each summer that followed. After brushing up considerably on her Italian, she became a professional translator.
“I was absolutely in love,” said Labatt. “People asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say, ‘an Italian.’”
Labatt returned home and completed her bachelor’s in Renaissance and Medieval History from Barnard. However, feeling something had still not fallen into place, she headed to Christie’s Auction House back in New York City.
This masters program, Labatt said, was the turning point in her academic career. Accredited by the University of Glasgow, the program offers a masters degree in the history of art. In the auction house environment, however, Labatt quickly recognized her dissatisfaction.
“It was so fast-paced,” she said. “We would evaluate a piece, price it and get it on the floor as quickly as possible. I began to realize I just wanted to sit with the pieces and take my time with them. I wanted to study them.”
And so, Labatt began the road to academia. She contacted Marian Ainsworth, curator of European art at the Met, who advised her to apply for a research assistant position for an upcoming show — “Byzantium Faith and Power.” The exhibit, put together by Helen Evans, became a milestone in Labatt’s career. She credits Evans with giving her opportunities in the beginning that “little people” (or non-Ph.D students) rarely have.
“I was writing essays, giving private and public tours, lecturing around town, contributing to the Met’s blog and working in one of the most prestigious art museums in the world. I wanted to pinch myself,” she said.
One such private tour occurred while the Byzantium exhibit was on display. Labatt recalled her surprise (and fear) when a group of 30 or so Byzantine monks arrived at the Met for a tour — and she was their guide.
“I was so nervous!” she said with a laugh. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is their art!’”
Having gotten her foot in the door within the realms of academia and museums, Labatt began work on her Ph.D. in art history at Yale University. It was there that she found her “happiest place on Earth,” as she recalled, and the fellowship that brought her back to her art history-loving roots — Rome.
Labatt explained the two-year “Rome Prize,” a fellowship offered through the American Academy in Rome. She recounted the long evenings spent at tables in the courtyard of the institution, having conversations over good food and good drink, about art, history and life in general.
“We would sit there for hours,” she remembered fondly. “We talked about anything and everything: what makes art, what makes good art, the topography of the city, our fields of research.”
It was there, seven years after her initial trip, after her tour guide and translating experiences, after falling in love with the city that changed her life, that Labatt completed her dissertation. “It’s kind of poetic, really,” she said. “Going back to where it all began.”
Labatt is currently working on diffusing her love for art into her hometown through the Art History 101 lecture series at SAMA. The second of the series premieres next Friday. A full schedule of SAMA events can be found at www.samuseum.org.
The museum’s Second Friday Art Party event after the lecture 6-8 p.m. will also be a crowded event with live music, complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. Art Party and Art History 101 are both free with museum admission (adults $10, senior’s 65 and older $7, students and military $5, children under 12 enter free).
SAMA hopes to bring in as many art lovers and curious spectators to tonight’s presentation as they did at the first event (if not more). So come one, come all, and enjoy wine, art history and good company.
Sarah Hedrick is a San Antonio native, Baylor grad, theatre fanatic, music lover, and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahthelyd.