The varied background of R. Scott Blackshire, the McNay Art Museum’s new curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, is immediately apparent upon reading his brief biography. Unusual in the museum world, Blackshire did not study art history but, instead, earned his doctorate in performance studies in the Performance as Public Practice program at the University of Texas at Austin.
In addition to performing as an opera singer and teaching, Blackshire directed a children’s charity in Cambodia, working with locals to design and build a village that would serve its community’s needs. That experience was formative in his approach to listening and learning from a community rather than imposing his own vision, he said.
“I felt like it changed me, how I walk through life. Who are leaders? How do you lead in a community where you don’t know the people?” Blackshire asked. “Well, you get to know them. You move out into the community,” which he plans to do in San Antonio after 12 years in Austin.
The experience in Cambodia was also what led Blackshire into performance studies, he said, a career track that illustrates his approach to the deeper meaning of theater arts as an expression of how individuals relate to their immediate communities.
“Who are we all as people? In a community, in government, in the arts, in public service, in private industry. What is the performance of citizenship? I bring that mindset here,” he said.
Interestingly, the vainest moment of Blackshire’s career as an opera singer was also his most revelatory one.
“But where in the world is there in
the world a man so untouched and pure?” Blackshire sang, in the role of conceited knight Sir Lancelot in a production of Camelot.
“C’est moi!” he sang (“It’s me!”), and the bubble of self-regard burst. Theater seats filled with 2,500 audience members exploded into laughter at his words, delivered just as he had practiced again and again in rehearsals, never really thinking of an audience.
But in that moment, he said, he realized this interaction was what theater is all about. “Now all I could think about was the audience, and what are they getting from what’s onstage? What are they getting from me as an artist? What’s an audience getting from walking through a gallery” filled with historical artworks, and what does a performance experience really communicate?
“I think it’s what are you performing, onstage or in life — your job, your work, your activism, your social justice — how is that being received, and is it being received, and what’s your audience or community getting?” he pointedly asked.
These questions inform Blackshire’s approach to his work, and his focus on community is what attracted him to the McNay Art Museum.
“It was meeting the people at the McNay, talking with [McNay Executive Director] Rich Aste about the engagement efforts with the community, the goals the institution has over the next decade to make itself more open, more ethical, to provide excellence in terms of programming, and to look for those moments of innovation … I wanted to be a part of that,” Blackshire said.
The entire staff at the museum continually engages in discussions about how to engage the community, “not just in a way of us giving information to them, but receiving it, as well,” he said. “For a large institution to take that to heart and look to the community for direction is smart. It’s an appealing place to work.”
Blackshire arrives on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of Robert L.B. Tobin’s passing, the patron, collector and donor of the theater arts collection that bears his name. Blackshire’s first solo-curated exhibition next summer will showcase Tobin’s vision as a collector and philosophy as a student of theater and believer in community.
“There needs to be a reintroduction of Robert Tobin to San Antonio, to Texas, to the U.S.,” Blackshire said, and of the importance of his collection of more than 12,000 objects related to theater, including set and costume designs, maquettes, ephemera, and fine art pieces.
According to Tobin, all “are just as important as a Matisse, a Chagall, a Picasso, work that’s hanging by itself as a representation of fine art,” Blackshire said. “Making that connection was something that a lot of people weren’t doing when he was at the peak of his collecting.”
Tobin’s community spirit also informs the McNay’s philosophy of community engagement and matches Blackshire’s hopes to “really get to the crux of theater arts as a medium for the people.”
The upcoming exhibition will demonstrate that “people should know about him and his work and the collection we have here,” which is rivaled only by those of the New York Public Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Blackshire said. Though the Tobin Collection is very specific to its collector, he said, “I feel that we as an institution can make it relevant to everybody, and we’ll find those ways.”
In the meantime, Blackshire will enjoy the upcoming America on Stage exhibition, which opens March 21 and runs through June 30. The show, organized by Rene Paul Barrilleaux, McNay head of curatorial affairs, and Tobin Fund intern Timothy Retzloff, will celebrate innovative American stage designers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In the fall, Blackshire will take the helm of Picasso to Hockney, an exhibition focused on artists usually more well-known for their fine artworks, but who also designed sets and stage props for theatrical productions, including the exhibit’s namesake artists, along with Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), who worked regularly with Ballet Russes, and well-known American Pop artist Robert Indiana (1928-2018).
Blackshire takes to heart his role in bringing the vision of Robert Tobin to life, through his collection and his commitment to his community. “How are we going to perform Robert Tobin’s citizenship and have that reflect the community?” Blackshire asked.