Trash or Treasure?
At 10 years old, the Wolfsonian has redefined museums and Miami Beach
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Lester Beall's 1937 poster, part of the permanent collection of the Wolfsonian–Florida International University.
An exercise machine made by the Health Developing Apparatus Co. in about 1905.
Founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Michele Oka Doner's 2003 bronze-inlaid terrazzo floor tile, now installed at the entry of the new café.
"Art and Design in the Modern Age," the museum's ongoing exhibition.
An Edison Machine Works generator, 1899.
Call us collectors—if you must. In a nation obsessed with nostalgia, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., leads the pack rats. Like many Americans, he no longer remembers exactly what he has accumulated or how much he spent in the process. Maybe $100 million? "It's amusing to speculate," he says.
That dollar figure came from his longtime associate Cathy Leff. "Right out of the crib," she says, "he grabbed for things." And he rarely let go—consider his childhood collection of hotel keys. Wolfson's own father used to complain, "Micky, can't you sell some of this stuff?"
His possessions eventually found their way to a Miami Beach warehouse. When they had virtually taken over that Mediterranean revival building, he decided to buy it and open his collection to the public, he explains, "so people could see things the way I saw them." The name he picked for the museum, Wolfsonian, resonated with an Anglo-ironic sense of destiny.
That was 1995. Last year, the museum attracted 60,000 visitors—belying initial skepticism both in and outside the art and design worlds. "Don't think I haven't been attacked," Wolfson says with a hint of glee. Some in the media did brand the project as a rich man's indulgence. Leff, now the museum's director, particularly remembers the New York Times appraising the collection "as if it were somebody's junk." Ultimately, positive coverage from Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, for one, helped catalyze a change in perception. "It's gone from junk to stuff to objects to Material Culture," Wolfson says.
He's sitting in a chubby armchair in his New York studio apartment, his bare feet resting on an exquisite rug woven for the Titanic. "It's still damp," he jokes—then admits that the rug wasn't actually finished in time for the fateful voyage. Despite the morbid humor, his ample mustache lends him a slight resemblance to Mr. Monopoly from the board game, minus the top hat.
Neither Wolfson nor Leff has a design or curatorial background. Fortunately, Wolfson considers the enterprise something of an anti-museum, and he always bought whatever caught his eye—the more eccentric it was, the happier it made him. Any collection tells a story, and this one is the biography of a history nut. As summed up by Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, "Micky likes objects that are encrusted with historical significance. The more encrusted the better."
There are century-old exercise machines and the 1913 finial that once topped New York's Woolworth Building—a motley 100,000 items in all. "It's easier to say what it isn't," Leff offers, "though politics is always part of the story." Wolfson has acquired provocative mementos of colonialism, Nazism, and Communism as well as the New Deal.
You can imagine debates over F.D.R. and the minimum wage taking place at his parents' dinner table. As the scion of an old Florida TV-broadcasting family, he remains fascinated by the tools that shape public opinion, regardless of aesthetics. "A lot of ugly things speak the truth," he says. Leff recalls the impact of a 2000 exhibition examining German graphic design from 1880 through 1945—and moving the museum further toward art-world credibility.
To increase the financial stability of his project, Wolfson had donated the premises and collection to Florida International University, a local college that oversees daily operations, thanks to a $2 million annual subsidy supplied by the state legislature. The museum's endowment remains surprisingly small, perhaps just $1 million, but vital in- fusions come from the unusually large board, which includes hotelier André Balazs, Arquitectonica principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia, and Design District developer Craig Robins. Future bills may be paid, in part, by revenues from an enlarged museum shop and café, designed by Miami modernist Mark Hampton and scheduled to open November 11.
That's the same day that the museum celebrates its first decade with a gala dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables—inspired by the hotel's opening night in 1926, right down to the duck consommé and key lime bars. (Not coincidentally, November 12 is the opening of the Wolfsonian's "In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze & Weaver and the American Hotel," which features the Biltmore prominently.)
In December, the action moves to Italy. Wolfsonian research fellows take another step toward intellectual prestige when they're formally welcomed at the American Academy in Rome. Meanwhile, Wolfson himself opens another museum in Nervi, close to Genoa. The country's first design museum, it will showcase Italian, Austrian, and German decorative and propaganda arts, again from 1880 to 1945. This latest sibling in the Wolfson museum family is, indeed, named like a sister: Wolfsoniana.