Arts The book of life 

The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts is a magnificent library looking for a clientele

When Robert Tobin designed his eponymous gallery at the McNay Art Museum to look like the library in his Oakwell Farms home, he hoped that local academics and theater professionals would make it a library of their own. Tobin's collection of scene and costume designs and rare books from the early days of theater forms the nucleus of the 12,000-object Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts at the McNay, and it is a magnificent resource for directors and designers, as well as for students of design and theater history. "You'd have to go to New York or San Francisco or London to see a collection of this sort," says Curator Jody Blake.

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Holdings in the McNay's extensive Tobin Collection include rare Renaissance festival books and a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph, "Programme pour le Theatre Libre; Le Missionnaire."

While designers from New York, curators from Russia, and opera critics from London travel to San Antonio to use the collection, local theater professionals are not making the most of the resource right under their noses. Blake says the library averages about one visit per month from local professors and their classes during the school year, and she rarely hears the kinds of requests she imagined fielding when she took over as curator of the collection in 2002.

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Tony Straiges maquette for the forest in "Into the Woods."

"If they'd say 'I'm designing South Pacific,' or 'I'm designing Threepenny Opera,' or 'I'm designing The Tempest, what do you have that I could look at?' that would be great," she says. "I don't know if they realize what is here and what's available to them."

"If they want to study period costume, we have books about costume construction," says Blake. "If they want to research makeup or historical styles, or to look at images of productions of Shakespeare or Molière, we have it."

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Photo of Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin rehearsing a number for the 1950 production of Call Me Madam.

Patrons can also make an appointment to view the collection's rare books, which include one of the collection's particular strengths, festival books, the big, commemorative albums of the processions and plays produced at the courts of the Medici, Louis XIV, and Napoleon. "They're a reminder of how theater originated," Blake says. "Along with the religious mystery plays, the festivals were really one of the origins of theater, and certainly the origin of the idea of staging with special effects, wind machines, smoke, fire, and chariots flying through the sky."

Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts

10am-3:45pm Tue-Fri,10am-4:45pm Thu

McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels

Early stagecraft will be the focus of The Realm of Illusion, an exhibit opening in the Tobin gallery on December 6 to celebrate the fifth and final major gift to the collection from the Tobin estate. The group of rare works on paper includes more than 500 theater designs from Europe from 1600-1900. The 2006 exhibit schedule also includes Toulouse-Lautrec and Friends at the Theatre (March 1- May 14, 2006), showcasing programs and lobby cards created for the avant-garde theater scene in Paris in the 1890s by renowned artists such as Edvard Munch and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a collection the McNay has just acquired with major support from the Tobin Foundation. The museum will bring Show Business! Irving Berlin's Broadway from the New York Public Library (July 12 - October 1) and, next winter (October 18 - December 31) will present Once Upon a Stage: Fairy Tales and Other Childhood Favorites from the Tobin Collection, highlighting designs for musical theater inspired by fairy tales, historical legends, and other popular stories.

Blake wants to collaborate with the local theater community to create events that support the museum's educational mission and bring visibility to the companies. San Pedro Playhouse, for example, has presented previews of its upcoming musicals on select Thursday nights at the McNay. "If I can help create a nexus for the community," Blake says, "I would like to be able to do that. I think that by joining forces together we could really make a splash."

For information about the library's holdings, or to make an appointment to view the rare books, e-mail

By Laurie Dietrich

More by Laurie Dietrich



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