A Gift Of Art From Two Philanthropic Giants

Mar 27, 2015

As I walked out of San Antonio's McNay Museum of Art this morning, after a wonderful interview with Linda Hardberger, I felt as though I were swimming upstream against an unstoppable current of children. They were there to tour the McNay's current exhibition of pieces from the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. I had only moments earlier been speaking to Mrs. Hardberger, the first curator of the Tobin Collection, about the visionary Robert Tobin and his insistence that his vast collection of theatre art, including priceless books and thousands of set and costume designs, be accessible to the public. He was also deeply committed to opening his collection to the children of San Antonio, believing this might light the fire of artistic appreciation in the lives of many. I was certainly seeing ample evidence of Tobin's vision in the faces of the many children, eyes opened wide to the many treasures displayed around them.

Later in the afternoon, I spoke to David Amram, one of the most generous musical artists I have ever met. His enthusiasm, even if only over the telephone, is contagious. I wanted to ask David about his numerous collaborations with the New York theatre producer, Joseph Papp. Through David's experiences in creating music for the theatre, I hoped to better understand Robert Tobin's enthusiasm for collecting theatre artifacts.

Mrs. Hardberger speaks first as only a former librarian might about the difficult challenge of making a priceless collection of books and art open to anyone who cared to examine it, hands on.

Linda Hardberger: “Another interesting thing is that he insisted, and of course for any curator or librarian it's a nightmare, but he insisted on these being accessible to the public. Now we fudged it and told him (you kind of had to go around him a little bit) that we didn't have insurance in case anybody fell off the ladders. They could certainly ask to see anything, and since my office was in this gallery, I was able to do that, and we gave them gloves and we did the whole thing. But he wanted all this open and he'd prefer to have everything open, even the downstairs. But we couldn't really accommodate that, so we told him that we would do the best we could, but there were some rules that we had to follow.”

Joseph Papp (left), producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and David Amram during King John rehearsals at the Public Theater, 1967. Longtime collaborators, Amram composed scores for 25 of the Festival's productions.
Credit Henry Grossman

Baker: It's about the gift of art, whether making a rare collection of theatre artifacts available to the public or, as David Amram tells us of producer Joseph Papp, it's bringing Shakespeare to life in Central Park, for free....

David Amram: “And the plays were terrific and the New York Times' Brooks Atkinson gave them fantastic write-ups, saying these are wonderful new things in Central Park, free Shakespeare, and that's when Joseph Papp told me something that I never forgot, which was that when he was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, in his family the three languages which were spoken were Polish, Yiddish, and a little bit of English. When he was in public school, he was in the library and he saw this book by somebody named Shakespeare. So he picked up the Shakespeare and started reading it and he said it really changed his life. He said that's what made him realize that he could go beyond the block that he lived in, in Brooklyn, go beyond speaking Polish and Yiddish and a little bit of English, to speaking a whole lot of English and going out into the world at large. Then when he became successful as an actor and what they called the floor manager for CBS Television, he had a dream that everybody else, from those who didn't speak English, and had hardly any money to live on, up to the most affluent person, all could share in the beauty of seeing and hearing Shakespeare, for free! Of course, that was probably the craziest idea of all time and he never lost sight of that. Years later, when he became incredibly successful as the producer of “Chorus Line” and these gigantic hit plays on Broadway, he took all that money and put it back into the Shakespeare festival himself rather than say 'now I've done my pro bono work and now it's time to join the full greed ahead club.' He took all that money and put it back into what he actually believed in. So he was one of the few people I ever met who really walked the walk that they talked. He was a wonderful, hard-working, dynamic, committed person.”

Baker: Linda Hardberger worked side-by-side with Robert Tobin in developing programs for kids and lectures for the adults, all intended to deepen appreciation for the performing arts.

Linda Hardberger: “One of the things we did with kids, for example, is we talked about Halloween and why people get dressed up in funny costumes, opening up the idea of going to the theatre. He was, as I am, a huge believer in real theatre, not movies, but live theatre, and that was beginning to happen in San Antonio more and more. We wanted them to understand that there were different ways to communicate, that one could communicate through theatre, or music, or through reading, that this was just another adjunct to what you learned in school. And there was an amazing number of people, that once they came to a lecture here, they suddenly realized 'that's what I would like to do.' We've had several people who came to these lectures and decided that's what they wanted to do. That's a special thing, to spark some interest or enthusiasm at an early age. So many kids flounder and don't really know what they want to do.”

Beginning on Friday evening, April 3rd, KPAC will present a five-part series in celebration of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. Guest commentators will include Linda Hardberger, Jody Blake (current curator of the Tobin Collection), David Amram, choreographer Ben Stevenson, and conductor Carl St. Clair. They will lend their varied perspectives to a broad view of the value of the Tobin Collection and why we should embrace this San Antonio treasure. And, of course, there will be music. Each artifact featured from the Tobin Collection will suggest music, ranging from dance music of the 18th century, to the colorful modernism of Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Liadov, to music from American musical theatre. Please join us every Friday evening from 7-8 PM for The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts: A Musical Vision, on KPAC-San Antonio and KTXI-Ingram.