Editor’s Note: Though the City of San Antonio has officially banned large gatherings, as of now the McNay Art Museum remains open for regular admission, observing CDC-recommended care and social distancing protocols.
Though philanthropist and ardent arts fan Robert Lynn Batts Tobin died in 2000, his voice is very much present in the Robert L. B. Tobin: Collector, Curator, Visionary exhibition on view at the McNay Art Museum through April 26.
Curator R. Scott Blackshire drew on research to find Tobin quotes that became “guiding points” for viewers of the exhibition. “For each wall section, there’s a quote on the info panel that offers a thought that one can keep in their mind as they move through the works of art,” Blackshire said.
One quote Blackshire keyed on was, “what marble might not be able to achieve, the artist of the theater could.” He translated the idea of marble as architecture, then arranged a group of works including an architecturally-themed painting by British artist George Morris, alongside scene designs and an elaborate opera stage maquette, or miniature, by American stage designer Ming Cho Lee.
Tobin also believed theater arts to be on equal footing with works traditionally considered “fine art.” Blackshire’s installation reflects that philosophy, mingling paintings and drawings by noted artists René Magritte, Claes Oldenburg, and others with set-design drawings and paintings by Robert Wilson, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and many others.
The exhibition as a whole allows insight into Tobin’s life and mind, with Blackshire’s careful selection of 100 objects representing the breadth of his collection and interests. Functioning as a gateway, a vignette at the entrance to the exhibition reproduces the foyer of Tobin’s New York apartment, with its elegant carved walnut-and-marble George III-style console table, where singer Beverly Sills herself, among other notable personalities counted among Tobin’s friends, might have placed her gloves upon entering.
Above the console is a surrealistic painting by Daniel O’Sullivan, imagining a scene in Dante’s Divine Comedy and featuring human and animal figures in a stage-like space. The combination deftly captures Tobin’s sensibilities for elegance and imagination, Blackshire suggested.
The three-part exhibition subtitle refers to Tobin’s multiple roles in the arts. As a collector, he amassed a vast collection numbering more than 14,000 objects. Tobin curated exhibitions at multiple venues including the San Antonio Art League, and worked with institutions around the world, including the National Council on the Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the Spoleto arts festival in Italy, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, known as “the Met.”
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With his arts-loving mother Margaret “Mag” Batts Tobin, Robert underwrote at least eight operas for the Met, which reflected both his love of tradition and his respect for more experimental forms of theater and design.
“There’s no doubt that the generosity of the Tobins … enabled opera companies to reach farther than they might otherwise have done,” said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a national advocacy organization, who gave a lecture at the McNay on March 5. Scorca also praised Tobin’s “exquisite taste in underwriting,” which he said enabled “visionary artistic enterprises” by opera companies he supported.
One signal moment in the history of opera was the Tobin-produced 1975 staging of The Siege of Corinth, featuring singer Beverly Sills’ first appearance at the Met. The exhibition features her actual costume worn during the performance, designed by Russian stage designer Nicola Benois, along with a YouTube-derived video of Sills singing in her powerful and melodic voice.
“Mag” is present in the exhibition, with an oil portrait painted by Douglas Chandor overlooking the grand library staircase in the second room of the McNay’s theater arts galleries and through the existence of the theater arts wing of the McNay, which she built to honor her son’s 50th birthday through her work as a museum trustee and board president.
A clever combination of objects that culminates the exhibition honors Robert Tobin, calling forth his presence through a youthful and contemplative oil portrait by painter Lonnie Rees, hung above a set design maquette actually made by Tobin during his studies at the University of Texas at Austin. A maquette by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn features a cardboard cutout of Tobin on stage, commemorating a 1973 production of The Young Lord in which he had a small role.
A row of photographic portraits by Yousuf Karsh charts Tobin’s appearance throughout his lifetime, highlighting his eccentric and elegant style.
Throughout, Tobin’s generosity shines, in his consistent support for theater and visual artists, and in his substantial collection donation to the McNay. One information placard quotes Tobin as saying of his collecting proclivities, “It is an experience in sharing. And that, in some ways, is a selfish love of this material – wanting people to love it as much as I do.”
Robert L. B. Tobin: Collector, Curator, Visionary is accessible with regular museum admission.