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Colorfully collaborative: MFA’s ‘Art of the Stage’ to open Saturday

Bill DeYoung



Natalia Goncharova (Russian, 1881-1962). Characters in "Le Coq D'Or," c. 1922. From left: General Polkan, Queen of Shemakha, Prince Guidon, The Astrologer. Oil on canvas costume designs. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

A performance is a performance – one of a kind, ephemeral, here and gone. No two are alike, as it has been and always shall be, from the earliest plays in Ancient Greece to the Broadway and concert stage extravaganzas of today. If you weren’t there, you missed it.

But what goes into creating a performance? Lots of rehearsal, certainly – just ask anybody, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” – and a whole lot of artistic vision, design and craftsmanship.

Costumes designed by Robert Indiana for a 1970s production of the opera “The Mother of Us All” (Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thompson). Photo by Bill DeYoung.

It’s the latter element, the backstage artistry, that takes center stage in the exhibition opening Saturday at the Museum of Arts St. Petersburg. Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney includes more than 100 studies for scene, costume, curtain and program designs, going back to the late 19th Century. There are costumes, sketches and paintings from the groundbreaking European Ballet Russes, working costumes from modern-day opera pioneer Robert Indiana and performance artist Leslie Dill, a maquette (3-D scenery) and cubist scene painting by Pablo Picasso and original work for theatrical posters by legendary pop artist David Hockney.

David Hockney, “Parade,” 1981 screen print, Collection of the McNay Art Museum. Ballet by Eric Satie, produced by the Metropolitan Opera, 1981.

It’s a dazzling, colorful display, ambitious and epic, and it’s accompanied by a drawn-out series of performances, in a specially-created gallery and stage with seating for 60 people, meant to enhance the historical (and contemporary) spirit of collaboration that lingers and hovers in the air of every room.

The Florida Orchestra, St. Petersburg Opera Company and a variety of local actors, dancers, singers and storytellers will perform over the course of the run of Art of the Stage.

Margaret Murray, who curated the performance schedule, felt like a kid in a candy store.

Performance curator Margaret Murray in the intimate theater space created for ‘Art of the Stage.’ Photo by Bill DeYoung.

“The directive,” she remembers, “was ‘work in the spirit of collaboration.’ And it was really amazing to be able to approach performers and say ‘This is what we have. What would you do with it?’

“I feel like it was really curating a small performing arts festival. Not even a small one! This is going to encompass three months of performance.”

Pablo Picasso, Scene design for “Pulcinella,” circa 1920. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of the Tobin Endowment.

Executive director Kristen A. Shepherd has been counting the days until Art of the Stage made its entrance. “This is a show I’ve wanted to do for years,” she says, adding that collaborations with local and regional performing arts groups have always been high up on her wish list. “And it’s an absolutely gorgeous exhibition that is going to allow us to activate the museum in new ways for the entire run of the show.”

For her, visual art – don’t say “static,” she insists, because this show is anything but – is itself visceral and alive. “The art world is multi-disciplinary. It is a place for intersections of all kinds, and this show illustrates better than most any show I know how visual artists are both influenced by, and collaborate with, performance.

“And so showing that intersection in such an active, lively and fun way is going to be a gift to this community. I’m really excited about it.”

“The process,” points out co-curator R. Scott Blackshire, “is just as artistic and creative as the final product.”

Blackshire is curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts at the McNay Art Museum in Texas, from which the exhibition is extracted. Katherine Pill is the MFA curator.

Robert Tobin, the collection’s namesake, was a businessman and philanthropist both beloved and respected the world over. ”He and his mother,” Beverly Sills once said, “were two of the most generous patrons of the arts I have ever known.”

Tobin, whose fascination with theater art began at an early age, “was a connoisseur of Art, with a capital A,” according to Blackshire. “He understood the beauty and the value of fine art, as we call it, but he also appreciated the storytelling and the work that was done onstage in those collaborative efforts of directors and conductors and dancers and choreographers.

Co-curators Katherine Pill of the MFA and R. Scott Blackshire of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, Texas. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

“I think he was really, really intent on knowing art performance through the multiple people that presented it. So I think it was this understanding of what is excellence that started his fascination with collecting.”

The Tobin Collection at the McNay, in San Antonio, is considered one of the largest and most thorough collections of this art anywhere.

It’s not ephemera. It’s not memorabilia.

Over time, Blackshire explains, Robert Tobin realized that “not only are these materials important for the documentation of craft and practice in theater, but the objects themselves rival what we call fine art.

“So he began to collect in a way that blurred the lines between what we would call fine art and what we would call theater designs. In his mind, they were one and the same.”

Museum website here.

Performance schedule here.








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