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Collector's Choice Robert L.B. Tobin let his passion for theatrical design guide his collecting career--and left behind an invaluable legacy.
Collecting is an art unto itself, and the best collectors have an artistic sensibility. They follow a muse, look for serendipitous connections and seek out moments of epiphanous inspiration between the inevitable hours of perspiration involved in any serious endeavor.

Take Robert L.B. Tobin, for example. Over nearly five decades of collecting theatrical scenic designs from the Renaissance to the present day, he amassed a sizable collection that helps to tell much of the history of scenic design in the Western theatrical tradition and as such is an invaluable resource to rival the best collections in America, including that of the New York Public Library.

But compiling a thoroughgoing sample of scenic design history wasn't necessarily what Tobin set out to do when he bought his first set of portfolios in college. In fact, at that time Tobin, heir to his father's aerial-surveying fortune, was himself studying to be a designer at the University of Texas. While writing a paper for a course on theatre history, Tobin wanted to study a set of 12 portfolios called Monumenta Scenica, which provided a visual history of scene designs reproduced from the collection of the Viennese Theatre Museum. But run-of-the-mill student access wasn't sufficient for his purposes, so he contacted a rare book dealer and purchased a copy of the portfolio for himself.

Before his death in 2000, Tobin would end up purchasing most of the original etchings, engravings and drawings reproduced in that set of 12 portfolios that started his collecting career.

"He bought things that he liked," recalls Linda Hardberger, who worked as Tobin's curator for 18 years and now works for the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund, a nonprofit based in San Antonio, Texas, which is also the site of the Tobin Collection. "He was particularly interested in serendipity of the various connections that people could make by seeing one design, then another design. He was a very eclectic kind of guy; he liked for people to pull books off the shelf and look at them."

Hardberger jokes that when people would call Tobin a "Renaissance man," she would correct them. "He was totally a Baroque person—there were no straight lines in anything he bought. That was his taste." But with the consultation of a theatre professor, a rare-book expert and Hardberger, Tobin would also work to fill out the collection if there was "a real hole" in its chronology, Hardberger says.

The Tobin Collection, which has an extensive exhibition program at San Antonio's McNay Art Museum, includes scenery and costume designs, sketches, engravings, maquettes for stage productions, paintings and scholarly texts. While the material spans the performing arts from ballet to musical theatre, opera, fittingly enough, has been the Collection's primary focal point from the start.

The fascination with opera predates the Collection, in fact. It was when Tobin was eight that his art-loving mother, Margaret, took him to see a production of Daughter of the Regiment featuring Lily Pons at the opera house in Dallas. He next thrilled to Aida, and by age 12 Tobin had built his own small theatre with costumes and scenery for Don Giovanni.

"He was sort of always a frustrated designer," says Hardberger. "One of the proudest things he carried in his wallet was a card for the scenic designers' union--they made him an honorary member."

Among the designers highlighted in the collection are such Metropolitan Opera stalwarts as John Conklin and Eugene Berman. Broadway names include Tony Straiges, Santo Loquasto, David Gallo, Adrian Lobel and Tony Walton. Collecting the original design drawings and models of scenic and costume designers is a specialty market that has no standard indices and is therefore a valuable service to posterity.

"A ton of this stuff gets lost, because it goes to the scene shop, and they drop paint all over it," Hardberger says. "And John Conklin is famous for cannibalizing his own models, using old ones to make new models. It is a very ephemeral art; it's not made to be shown."

All of which makes the Tobin Collection and the efforts of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund all the more remarkable in their complementary endeavors to celebrate, support and sustain the art of theatrical design.

For information on the 2008 TDF/Irene Sharaff Award and the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design, go here.