New Asian Collection gallery is dream come true

by Angela Jeffs

Robert Tobin makes charismatic progress around the back side of Ebisu Station in central Tokyo.

“O-hayo gozaimasu, Bob-san,” calls a smiling Japanese woman, waving from across the road.

“Hi there, how ya doin?” greets a young American businessman in passing.

When asked if he knows everyone, Bob laughs. “No, it’s just that this is my patch. My ‘hood.”

Bob is in a spin, but it’s the right kind of spin. Having been up early for a 7 a.m. appointment with a client who he is coaching in organizational change, Bob has an hour to spare before he heads off to Keio University, where he teaches in the faculty of business and commerce.

There is also the gallery, with 101 things still to do. Although — as he observes more than once — his plate is full, he’s not complaining. Because on Oct. 30, a longtime dream comes true: Bob and his partner, Hitoshi Ohashi (also up early to frame pictures), are opening Asian Collection, an exhibition space for paintings, prints and sculptures from all over Asia.

“It’s in our home in Naka-Meguro,” he explains, “so we’ll be open on one Sunday every month, and by appointment. If it goes well, we’ll aim to open a separate gallery, but that’s stage two.”

Born in Boston, Bob — who is 193 cm tall, with hands the size of dinner plates and a large heart to match — couldn’t wait to get away. “It was too cold and too small.”

He went as far as he could envisage at that time, to teach at Pepperdine University and live in Long Beach — “Iowa by the sea, if that means anything to you!” But it was a great life, living in a house on the beach, training for and participating in triathlons, and flirting with the local arts scene, which was “surprisingly good.”

He began his career in Asia working with the military, helping units downsize and working with officers to help them change direction and find new employment. Soon he was moving between bases all over the region.

In many ways it was a dream job, because “I was making contacts with artists everywhere I went. I was always interested in the arts, which is ironic, because personally — whether potting or painting — I’m hopeless. But I know what is good. I know what I like.”

The last 16 years have been stable, with Hitoshi. “We’re proud to be together. Everyone has ups and downs, but that’s normal. We just emerged from a big down, and now the relationship is stronger than ever. He does coaching too, but primarily he’s a fashion guy. Also he’s a boxer.”

The coaching part of Bob’s life is well established. Working with major companies like IBM, Citibank and Dell, but also lots of smaller outfits, he helps chief executive officers and chief financial officers become stronger leaders and prepares them for the demands of promotion.

At Keio too, he’s a familiar and effective lecturer. “I get 100 to 150 students and faculty members sitting in. This afternoon’s class is concerned with strategy and management as part of a course on innovative business management in Asia. Last night I did a special presentation on how to make a presentation.”

Six months ago, he took time off and went backpacking. Traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, he found Asian artists struggling, with nowhere to show their work. “I came back, and began contacting artists I’d met 20 years ago, saying: ‘How are you? Where are you? What are you doing now?’ It was Hitoshi who came up with the gallery’s name. He called me one day and said, ‘I’ve got it: Asian Collection.’ “

For the opening, AC will be showing original prints from Thailand’s Silpakorn University, including work by Natthapol Suwankusolong and Panya Vijinthanasarn. “I’d been to this university many times to see exhibits. The last time I visited I saw an artist cutting paper for amazing etchings using natural pigments. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked.”

The gallery features Mikihiro Nishimatsu, a painter from Kyushu who experiments with traditional materials to make gestural works inspired by calligraphy. Hong Kong’s Chung Tai Fu will show works on paper inspired by the movement of the people and culture of his city.

Such work will hang above a selection of monks’ alms bowls made by a sixth-generation family of Thai craftsmen. “Made from brass and steel, they are truly beautiful. I love them — and they will be the cheapest items on sale.”

The time spent backpacking — traveling light, living on next to nothing and visiting an orphanage of children whose parents had died of AIDS — helped free Bob of many crisis-perceived problems. That’s why 10 percent of all AC profits will go to the Phyathai Babies Home in Bangkok, and the Support the Children Foundation in Chiang Mai, which helps abandoned kids in Thailand. “Can you believe newborns are left in garbage cans?”

Asian Collection aims initially to sell to the expat client base. But he believes the word will quickly get out into the wider community. “I like to quote Thoreau: ‘To enhance the quality of the day . . . that is the highest of the arts.’ “

In the runup to the opening reception, Bob can’t stop smiling. “I’m so excited. I have an artist lined up who reflects the nostalgia of his mother’s life, with her sewing machine, a bill and something she made on it. And another who only does elephants, painted onto a backing that resembles elephant hide.”

Bob’s plate is full?

It’s overflowing. “There was a time when nothing was enough. Now enough is more than enough.”