Costumes, sets take center stage in new exhibit at Dayton Art Institute

“Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage” focuses on major artists who have lent their talents to dance, opera and theater

Two years ago when the team at the Dayton Art Institute decided to book a traveling exhibit replete with stage costumes and sets, they could never have predicted it would arrive at such a fortuitous time.

With arts lovers continuing to suffer withdrawal from live dance and theater performances and museums beginning to reopen, it turns out to be the ideal time for the show now on view. The colorful galleries are filled with lavish costumes and dramatic stage designs.

“Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage” focuses on major artists who have lent their talents to dance, opera and theater over the years. Did you know, for example, that artist Louise Nevelson, best known for her huge wall pieces and outdoor sculptures, once created program designs and a necklace for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis? Or that French painter Henri Matisse created a gorgeous silk robe for “The Song of the Nightingale” ballet for the Theatre National de l’Opera de Paris in 1920?

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Among the well-known 20th century artists whose work is on display at the Dayton Art Institute are Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Natalia Gontcharova, Joan Miró, Robert Indiana, Jean Cocteau and David Hockney. Through 120 objects — drawings, works on paper, paintings, and costumes — the exhibit offers fresh insights into movements from Cubism and Constructivism to Surrealism and Pop Art.

The exhibit is organized chronologically beginning with costume designs by Art Nouveau’s Alphonse Mucha — whose posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt were featured in DAI’s 2017 Mucha exhibit — and ending with elaborate costumes by New York performance artist Leslie Dill, who uses a wide variety of different materials, and serves as creator, producer, director and performer for her work.

Designing the galleries

When it comes to the overall look of the special exhibition galleries, DAI chief curator Jerry Smith, along with exhibition designer Martin Pleiss, have outdone themselves. Although many museums opt to display art on a white or neutral background, the DAI has become known for the creative gallery backdrops that complement each exhibit.

“We recognize that art is a lived experience and we live with color in our homes so why shouldn’t we have color in our exhibitions?” asks Smith. "Colors help transform the space.”

The result is the brilliant jewel-tone color palette on the walls of the current exhibit, a perfect setting for the theatrical theme of the show. “We start off with deep purples and blues that as you go into the exhibit opens up into brilliant reds and pinks,” he says. “It helps to differentiate different areas.”

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Meet Scott Blackshire

The traveling exhibition comes to Dayton from the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, where a collection of more than 12,000 theatrical treasures were donated by art collector Robert L.B. Tobin. Tobin, who believed that “designs come to life only when they are used,” was personally involved with many of these artists and said he valued their friendships as much as the art.

“He was a person who put his money where his privilege was,” says Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts at the McNay, who organized the show. “He recognized the power of theater and of telling stories and found that power in operas, ballets and plays. What he was able to identify ahead of its time is the notion that the artists who created the costumes and sets and lighting designs generated ideas that brought forth new worlds for the audience. That their work was noteworthy and should be recognized.”

Tobin was an unusual child who started his collection in 1951 when he was in high school. When his family listened to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio, he would create miniature models of opera sets from objects he found around the house. Blackshire says he aimed to design an exhibit that would represent his own philosophy about the arts and the way they connect to the community. “I want audiences to see some aspect of their own lives when they look at these costumes and set designs.”

Tobin wasn’t simply a collector, he often had a hand in the original commissions. For example, it was Tobin who suggested to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis they speak with Louise Nevelson about becoming involved with the opera, “Orfeo and Euridice.” Like other artists in this exhibit, designing for the stage offered Nevelson the freedom to head in a new direction.

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Other designs will look familiar; you’re likely to recognize Picasso’s cubist artwork in his 3-D stage set. “I don’t think many people would equate him with being a set designer, but he was very enamored with the art of ballet,” says Blackshire. “His first wife was a ballet dancer.” The original ballet set designs in this exhibit were for “Pulcinella” and “Le Tricorne” (The Tricorne Hat).

Women artists

One-third of the 30 artists in this exhibit are women. Before coming to Dayton, the exhibit traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the feminist theme highlighted the excellence women bring to the stage. “We focus a lot on Gontcharova and her decades-long affiliation with theater, Gertrude Stein as librettist of ‘Mother of Us All’ and Leslie Dill, who isn’t collaborating with a producer or company, but leads her own productions, creating artwork that tells the story she wants to tell,” says Blackshire. “It’s all her.”

The final gallery is pretty amazing, filled with colorful costumes. It features work by pop artist Robert Indiana, best known for his iconic “LOVE” sculptures. In 1976, during the nation’s bicentennial, he designed bold costumes and sets for the Santa Fe Opera production of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s “The Mother of Us All,” an opera about Susan B. Anthony and women’s suffrage.

Tobin, a close friend of Indiana’s, connected him with folks in Santa Fe and acquired over 100 of Indiana’s colorful works from the production. Look closely at the designs on the gallery walls and you’ll see they are made from hundreds of individual paper cuts.


Often the artists worked in collaboration with directors, choreographers, dancers. “There is documentation of Matisse working with costume seamstresses and the dancers,” Blackshire says. In contrast, sets and costumes by painter Paul Cadmus for the 1937 ballet, “Filling Station,” had to be modified in order to allow dancers to move in them.

Pop artist David Hockney, one of the most important Pop artists of the 20th century, was hired to create costumes and sets for a trilogy at The Met in New York. Blackshire believes the choreography and stage direction for the productions were secondary to the fantastical sets. “I found a note on a score we had and realized the handwriting was director John Dexter’s,” he explains. “At one point it reads: ''I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on but Hockney!'”

Don’t miss the designs by Russian avant-garde artist Alexandra Exter, whose abstract geometric shapes and designs are evident in her lighting design and her space-age costume — a hinged metallic cage that tapers down to harem pants. (If you’re wondering if it were possible for the actor to actually sit down in the bizarre costume, check out the tiny drawing in the corner which shows how the costume would look when the character was seated.)

Cincinnati native Jim Dine is represented in the show; in 1987 the Houston Grand Opera invited him to design their production of the Strauss opera, “Salome” with a libretto by Oscar Wlde. Dine designed every element — from sets and costumes to light projections.

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Facing the pandemic

Blackshire says the pandemic has been a challenge for arts organizations and performance groups across the board and has inspired them to present their work in new ways. “How do we give people a sense of hope and storytelling as we’re working our way through this pandemic?” he asks.

He believes there will be a revival of outdoor performances. “I can equate that with Medieval passion wagons when people would go from town to town to tell stories of Christ because of plague and sickness.”

“Museums are one of the safest creative artistic activities to engage in right now,” Blackshire concludes. “What I think is important about this collection is that it is a reminder of the innovation, collaboration and creativity over the course of hundreds of years that created new performance. Theater and performance is waiting for us on the other side of this pandemic. It’s what is going to get us through it.”


What: “Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage”

Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton

When: Through Jan. 17. Current hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Safety measures: All staff and guests are required to wear masks while in the museum and physical distancing measures are in place.

Admission: Special exhibits are now included with the price of general museum admission: $15 for adults; $10 for seniors, active military and groups of 10 or more; $5 for college students and youth; children ages 6 and younger and museum members are free.

More info: or email

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