Micky Wolfson Collection of Design and Propaganda Art
It stands on the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and 10th Street in Miami Beach, an impressive seven story Mediterranean Revival megalith that commands attention. In a former lifetime it was a warehouse—the “Public Storage” of its day—a repository built in 1926 into which wealthy residents could deposit their most valuable possessions, safe from the scourge of Mother Nature, while they escaped the hot and humid summers of a world before air-conditioning.
Over half a century later in 1992 it was established by the Wolfsonian Foundation as a museum and research facility, and subsequently donated to Florida International University in 1997, where it and its sister location in Genoa, Italy continue to provide an intriguing experience of industrial modernism in the form of style, substance and ideas.
In addition to its collections, the museum also features the Dynamo Museum Shop and Cafe, named for the Edison Dynamo generator occupying the hallway outside its entrance. You don’t need tickets to visit the gift shop or the cafe, and are welcome to sit back and leisurely enjoy some of their Indian chicken curry with mango chutney sauce, or Spanish tapas, while sipping a cup of French-press coffee or a glass of wine.
It’s an ideal way to spend the day away from the sun (or the rain) and the hustle bustle. But while you’re there, be sure to save a toast for Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., without whose efforts none of this would have been possible.
MICKY WOLFSON - THE MAN AND HIS VISION
Since his birth in 1939, Miami Beach native Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr. has always been a collector. It started with keys. Hotel keys, cabin keys, little reminders of his many travels with his family, who operated a chain of movie theatres in South Florida. As he grew up, his collection came to include an eclectic assortment of posters, paintings, furniture, appliances, ceramics, glassware, and assorted artifacts, most of which centered on a couple of recurring themes: propaganda art and relics from the emerging industrialist culture that surrounded it, spanning the years between 1885 and 1945.
“They talk to you just as another person would,” he notes, careful to emphasize that propaganda need not be malicious in nature.
Armed with a 1963 BA degree in comparative literature from Princeton University, as well as a subsequent Master’s in International Relations from John Hopkins, he continued his travels, spending five years in the diplomatic service in Miami, Washington, Genoa and Turin between 1966 and 1971.
Wolfson maintained his contacts in Genoa, and today operates the second branch of the Wolfsonian there. Says Wolfson, the Genoa location is “flourishing brilliantly in a converted mineral-water warehouse. There are 10,000 objects and a staff of three…. We’ve published two books there on architecture, we loan objects, participate in symposia; we have connections to the scholarly community in Italy.”
In the years following his diplomatic service in Italy, his holdings grew to number over 120,000 objects. They spoke of social, economic and political upheavals, of Big Brother and his efforts to mobilize the global workforce, of resourcefulness and imagination.
Once you’ve amassed this much stuff, you basically have two options: hold the mother of all garage sales, or showcase it for future generations to enjoy. Fortunately for us, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. chose the latter. In 1985, he purchased the Washington Storage facility which had so long housed his treasures, and a year later he began the Wolfsonian Foundation, as well as The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, a magazine dedicated to late 19th and early 20th century decorative and propaganda art.
Today, he sits on a number of academic, philanthropic, civic boards and advisory councils, actively promoting research, preservation and education. In 2005, he co-authored the book “Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden”, with artist Michele Oka Doner, a romantic retrospective on the local culture from the 1920’s through the 1960’s.
THE THINGS YOU’LL SEE
An impressive lobby leads the way to a rear elevator, which serves as the main connection between galleries housing the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits, housed on the 3rd, 5th and 7th floors. On the way there, you’ll pass an exquisite indoor fountain whose surrounding walls proclaim “Lo and Behold” and “Mira Y Ve”—a creation of artist Lawrence Weiner, who conceived it in honor of the 2006 Art Basel celebration. Its simply-stated purpose is to elicit a response: it is an affirmation of art as a motivating force—a challenge to let it inspire you to participate in the ever-unfolding drama it presents. The words are presented in both English and Spanish to convey the multicultural make-up of Miami Beach.
The elevator’s first stop was the third floor gallery, which, while rather small in size, nonetheless made a powerful statement with its current exhibit: Indoctrinating Youth—Selections from the Pamela K. Harer Gift of Propaganda Books for Children
Normally, when I think of propaganda, I generally think of the Soviets, the Nazis, George Orwell’s 1984 or Tokyo Rose wooing American G-I’s during their South Pacific bombing campaigns during World War II. But seeing these familiar images, including Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, and children’s book illustrations not dissimilar from countless Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons forever captured in the annals of my mind, I realized that so much of our own pop culture was no less propagandistic in nature.
Next, on the fifth floor, I found the permanent collection: an eclectic amalgamation of roughly 300 works, including advertising and political propaganda, paintings with industrialist themes, sculptures, books, and a few surprising relics: a couple of primitive vacuum cleaners, some vintage radios, and a turn-of-the-century Turkish folding chair.
There were materials dedicated to transporation and travel: posters, brochures, models, postcards of cruise ships, zepellins, airplanes and trains, interspersed with relics from the British Arts & Crafts movement, and Italian Art Nouveau. Among the more intriguing curios: a Magic Chef Stove, circa 1935, rescued from a Miami Beach apartment building and restored to its pristine condition, a tribute to streamlined design. I’d never thought of a stove as an art form, but there it was, no less an example of the futuristic Buck Rogers imagination than the Art Deco spires of the hotels on nearby Collins Avenue.
The juxtaposition of objects both rare and seemingly mundane inspired me to look at the more common things in a new light.
The seventh floor was a cornucopia of Nazi lore. Various swastika-emblazoned posters adorned the walls, in propaganda which both praised and ridiculed the ambitious movement, demonstrating its deceptively benign emergence in the 20’s and 30’s on handbills and affiches, morphing from what seemed a minor disgruntled labor movement into a sadistic, totalitarian empire. The sterility of the building itself provided a stark contrast to the intensity of the stories these objects told.
One particular exhibit that caught my eye was Agitated Images: John Heartfiled & German Photomontage, 1920–1938 (Now through February 10, 2008). Heartfield’s works were able to craftily make use of Nazi stances and formalities in ways that emphasized their innate absurdities, by combining various photos in a montage style not unlike the visuals in an episode of Monty Python. As a worker in Germany and Czechoslavakia between the two world wars, Heartfield aptly documented the country’s plunge into chaos and ruin, an environment which allowed Hitler to gain his foothold.
MAO MAO MAO
The Wolfsonian has been described as many things: a curiosity shop, A “celebration of modernity”, a “house of persuasive arts”, and a tribute to industrial modernist design in technology, philosophy and transportation. It is also, at its core, lest anybody forget, a research and study center, with a program in place awarding fellowships to visiting scholars since 1993. But, interestingly enough, the one label that Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. wants to avoid is “museum”. At its opening ceremonies on November 12, 1995, he proclaimed: “This is a movement, a crusade and a mission, and we’re all zealots - because we want people to see more than the objects. Objects contain powerful information, and we have to learn to read them.”
MUSEUM HOURS & ADMISSION
Museum…um….Mission hours are noon-6 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday, and noon to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. CLOSED WEDNESDAYS.
Admission for adults is $7, plus tax. Seniors, students with valid ID and children 6-12 are $5 plus tax. Admission is free after 6 p.m. on Friday, thanks to generous support of the Miami Herald. For more information, call 305-531-1001 or visit the Wolfsonian website.
Additional photos and discussion here.
Please note that while the Wolfsonian employees graciously allowed me to photograph exhibits for the purpose of this article, photography is generally not permitted above the first floor.
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