Travel the world at McNay Art Museum in San Antonio

Embark on an international journey with “Around the World in 80 Designs,” on view May 2 through August 4, 2024, at McNay Art Museum. Forty artworks from the McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts along with 40 companion images invite visitors to explore various destinations, from the Nile River in Egypt to an airport tarmac in Beijing. Using scene and costume designs and maquettes (small-scale models), the McNay presents the theatre arts through productions like “Aida,” “Death in Venice” and “Nixon in China.”

Alongside the artworks are images that consider what the locations for these productions might look like in real life.

“We hope ‘Around the World in 80 Designs’ ignites imaginations and visually transports visitors from the McNay to exciting new places without leaving San Antonio,” Matthew McLendon, the McNay’s director and CEO, said. “The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts is one of the finest collections of its kind, consisting of more than 12,000 artworks from around the globe. This exhibition offers an inventive way for us to become further immersed in the theater designs, inviting us to step out of the gallery and into the world.”

While some designers endeavor to build realistic environments on stage to accurately recreate a specific place and time, others are intentionally abstract in their visual storytelling and interpretation of a production’s setting. The McNay pairs each artwork with a corresponding image to further reinforce the connection to place. These pairings shine a light on the sheer beauty of designers’ representations of far-flung places.

One such scene comes from “Talley’s Folly,” the 1980 play that earned that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its writer, Lanford Wilson. In the small-scale stage design by designer Dan Hannon, viewers see the Talley farm boathouse set in Missouri.

The McNay offers an early 1900s photograph of Little Piney River in rural Missouri with an invitation to compare and contrast real and imagined settings. Similarly, a juxtaposition of theatrical interpretation and historical dress is seen by pairing Caroline Siedle’s costume design for a Nautch dancer in “The Tourists,” a 1906 musical set in India, with an accompanying photograph of a Nautch dancer from the same time period.

Robert Randolph,
Scene design for Trapper's Cabin in
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,
ca. 1982. Gouache, pastel, and graphite on paper.
Robert Randolph, Scene design for Trapper’s Cabin in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, ca. 1982. Gouache, pastel, and graphite on paper. Collection of the McNay Art Museum. Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin, TL1999.278.

Theatre design of storied stage classics are also on view. For a 1976 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” scenic designer Otakar Schindler references a bygone, mythical fairyland in ancient Athens, Greece. Imagery of a 2,000-year-old olive tree in the Greek village of Ano Vouves gives a glimpse into what ancient flora might have looked like and what might have inspired Schindler’s storyboard design.

Opera lovers will relish seeing John Piper’s 1973 scene design for “Death in Venice” that turns St. Mark’s Basilica into an ethereal mirage, obscured by the heat and haze of an Italian summer. Set in 1910 Venice, the scene is coupled with a view of the cathedral on a clear day, providing greater context for the backdrop.

Also included is the Nile scene maquette designed by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn for a 1980 production of “Aida.” The work is shown in context with an 1863 image overlooking the Nile River, revealing vistas that the composer and production team may have seen while in Egypt preparing for the opera’s original premiere in 1871.

“It is amazing to see the different ways designers creatively represent, reinterpret, or sometimes reinvent, real-world places for stage performances,” R. Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “The exhibition will allow visitors to stroll through a three-dimensional travelogue, if you will. This is a grouping of artworks that together heighten the thrill of traveling the world—but all within the McNay’s galleries. If you love traveling you will love this exhibition, and if you have never traveled then this is an opportunity not only to see some beautiful international destinations, but also to learn more about the theatre arts.”

The works on view come from the McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, which represents more than 500 years of excellence in theatre arts and includes paintings, works on paper, maquettes and sculpture as well as rare books of European and American theatre design from 1600 to the present. The collection is the life’s work and continued legacy of its namesake, the late philanthropist Robert L.B. Tobin, who was devoted to the celebration of visual arts in the theatre.

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