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McNay Hopes To Become ‘Netflix Of Art Museums’ Through Multimedia Exhibits

The McNay Art Museum’s new exhibit, "Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage," explores all mediums of theatre art, from set design to music composition to on-stage performance. The extensive collection of late San Antonio arts philanthropist Robert Tobin made the exhibition possible. 

The Tobin Collection Of Theatre Arts

Throughout his life, Robert Tobin — for whom one of San Antonio’s largest performing arts venues, the Tobin Center, is named — collected more than 10,000 works of theatre art. His vast collection of performance-related art is now on display in one of San Antonio’s largest visual art spaces — the McNay’s 7,000-square-foot Jane & Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions.

Crediting the massiveness of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, René Paul Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs, said the McNay is in a unique position to explore the relationship and circular influence between artists’ studio work and their work for the theatre. 

“There is a sort of unfortunate distinction in the art world between what people consider fine art and fine design,” said Barilleaux. “And what we’re really interested in is the way those two come together.”

Some of the pieces come from artists better known for their traditional visual art, but Tobin saw set and costume design as equal to more traditional art forms, according to museum director Richard Aste.

“For him, he wanted both art forms to be on the same plane,” Aste said. “And that’s why this show has side by side paintings and sculptures by Picasso, by Hockney, by Robert Indiana with their works for the stage."

This is the first time pieces from the Tobin collection are on display in the main exhibition gallery. The larger gallery space allowed curators to place different pieces by the same artist in conversation with one another.  

“We’ve been able to expand a conversation about art that they’re doing for the sake of art versus a design they’re coming up with for performance,” said Scott Blackshire, curator of the McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “One artist, but two different forms of creativity.” 

The exhibit includes a small fraction of Tobin’s total collection; about 1% is on display. 



Exploring all facets of theatre art, the exhibition also includes music. The soundscape features works written for the theatre by composers Erik Satie, Sergei Prokofiev and more. 

The multimedia approach will continue after this exhibit ends, according to Barilleaux. 

“We don’t think of our gallery as a place for quiet contemplation,” Barilleaux said. “That’s one aspect, but it’s not the only aspect. It’s also to engage with people.” 

In November, the McNay will host a one-time performance of work by San Antonio-based composer Nathan Felix. 

Felix’s “Headphone Opera” is an unusual experience for audience members. The singers are separated from the instrumental musicians and move freely throughout the performance space. Audience members will hear a live mix of the performance through high-quality headphones. 

Felix first composed a “Headphone Opera” last year for Luminaria. When the McNay asked him to compose a new piece specifically for the theatre art exhibition, Felix imagined a conversation between the exhibit’s namesakes — David Hockney and Pablo Picasso.

“I wanted to explore sort of fictional conversations they might have, because I know Hockney wanted to meet Picasso, but he never had the chance to,” Felix said. 

Because the artist characters in the opera also have pieces in the gallery, Felix gave special attention to choreography.

“Writing the opera, I knew that the movements of each character and how they meet was very important and how to use the set pieces that are already there in the McNay as either starting points or ending points for the characters so that I can have movement in all directions,” Felix said.

San Antonio composer Nathan Felix will present his "Headphone Opera" at the McNay in November.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh
San Antonio composer Nathan Felix will present his "Headphone Opera" at the McNay in November.

Felix didn’t want to give away too much, but said the conversations between Hockney, Picasso, two of Picasso’s former lovers and other characters carry an underlying theme of fragility. 

“It’s less about what they say to each other and more about internalizing this fragile element of relationships and conversations,” Felix said. 

The 40-minute performance is slated for Nov. 7. 



Responding to years of visitor requests for more interactive features, McNay curators included a number of engaging displays in the theatre art exhibit. 

Just past an original Pablo Picasso painting of a stage design for the ballet Pulcinella, visitors can enter a physical recreation of that design, constructed by McNay staff.

McNay staff built a life size version of one of Pablo Picasso's scene designs for Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella ballet.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh
McNay staff built a life size version of one of Pablo Picasso's scene designs for Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella ballet.

The large scene design contains a number of small, model stages, which are filmed by a camera and projected on the interior wall. Visitors can recreate scenes from Pulcinella, or invent new ones altogether. 

Next to the structure, kids — and adults — can choreograph the movements of a maquette doll modeled after Alexandra Exter’s Spanish Dancer Marionette. It dances along to a selection of electronic music tracks. 

The animation was created by Adam Watkins, department coordinator for the 3D animation and game design program at the University of the Incarnate Word. He said the interactive displays make the exhibition more engaging than a typical look-but-don’t-touch gallery. 

“Being able to play with this idea of letting a user see and touch and kind of move this in a virtual sense definitely moves it from way beyond that kind of passive experience into something that is far more present,” Watkins said. 

Adam Watkins created the maquette doll animation in his office at the University of the Incarnate Word.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Adam Watkins created the maquette doll animation in his office at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Combining multiple types of visual art, music and interactive displays, the McNay hopes to give every visitor something they can enjoy. 

“I’m really proud of calling the McNay ‘the new Netflix of art museums,’ where we have everyone’s passions on view at one point on our campus,” Aste said.

“Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage” is open now through late December. Tickets and more information are available at McNayArt.org.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony