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At left is a scenic design for Act 1 in Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel) in Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts at the McNay Art Museum. USITT is offering a special two-day tour of the collections before the start of the 2008 Annual Conference & Stage Expo.

Illustrations/Courtesy The McNay Art Museum

by Janet Harreld
Houston Promotions Coordinator


Tobin Collection Offers
Stunning Opportunities

Wow, wow and wow!

That's truly the only way for me to describe what I saw, or was awed by, at the McNay Art Museum's Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. I was not prepared for the incredible depth of the collection's holdings -- unfortunately a well kept secret but certainly not by intention. Those taking part in the two-day USITT event preceding the 2008 Annual Conference in Houston will have a wonderful opportunity to remedy any lack of knowledge of all that the Tobin Collection has to offer.

In fact, Robert Lynn Bates Tobin wanted his remarkable collection to be available to more than just theatrical scholars. Mr. Tobin's educational mission for the collection was availability to everyone, but particularly to students and working designers to serve as an inspirational fount.

I arrived at the McNay, or more properly the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio -- the first museum of modern art in Texas -- not knowing what to expect and certainly with many other things on my mind including an appointment later that afternoon elsewhere. I was about 30 minutes early as I approached an ochre hued traditional Spanish style house with very typical red tile above and ornate wrought iron covering the windows.

The most singular thing I noted were the odd architectural appendages here and there, of a form seemingly incoherent with the conventional style of the house. Still non-plussed and a bit road bedraggled, I took advantage of the few minutes to myself to rush through some of the galleries. Not a fan of impressionists, I hastily strolled through the first couple of galleries only taking note of some fine craft pieces.

I did spend some time in a touring exhibit of Mexican (or Mexican wannabes) prints. I did my due diligence in purchasing the Tobin Collection book -- An Eye for the Stage before enjoying a few softly sunny moments in the sculpture courtyard.

I was then led to the curator's office where I was met by an impish dark haired woman full of enthusiasm and with a touch of "you don't know it yet but I'm about to share with you something so wonderful."

Jody Blake does indeed know the value of the collection placed into her care. Although one can't tell from first impressions, the Tobin Collection is something so exceptional and extraordinary it must be included (at least at some point) in every designer's or technician's or student's schedule. It is so wondrous that I would urge anyone who had any interest in theatrical design of any sort to make the special trip to San Antonio to view the Collection.

The Tobin Collection exhibit space in the McNay is serene and spare but also quite inviting, rather like its curator, Ms. Blake.

The heart and soul of the Collection is in the not so glamorous storage facilities in the bowels of the museum. Kept under carefully controlled light and humidity are the gems amassed by Mr. Tobin over about a 40 year period. I marveled at the ornately beautiful original costume sketches for the Ballet Russes by Leon Bakst.

I was awed by the amazing graphically oriented work by Robert Indiana for The Mother of Us All. I was incredulous over the complete renderings by Robert Edmond Jones for Skyscrapers. I oohed and aahed (or perhaps more appropriately drooled) over the initial model for A Funny Thing Happened . . . I was generally just slack jawed.

Graciously, Ms. Blake asked if there was someone's work I would especially like to see. I was so dumbfounded that I almost couldn't answer. Even as a very young designer, I was enthralled with Jo Meilziner's work and that happened to be the one name I could stammer out. I saw some Meilziners so exquisite they reminded me of a Turner painting with the hundreds of delicate layers of color. Photographs can't begin to be faithful to the originals.

Participants in the Tobin Collection tour in March will benefit not only from Ms. Blake's incredible knowledge about an essential collection that has been entrusted to her, but also from being witness to so many memorable and inspiring pieces by renown designers and artists in American Theatre.

The tour, which includes an overnight stay in San Antonio, will be taking place at an opportune moment for the museum, as a new exhibit on The Ballets Russes at 100 is being installed in February and March while the museum is partially closed for construction.

Participants will be able to access the contents of the exhibit along with whatever Ms. Blake shares from the vaults. This is a rare opportunity indeed.

Wow, wow and wow!

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Below, Robert Indiana's costume design for Lillian Russell in The Mother of Us All.