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Sunday, 25 August 2013

Never Cry Wolfsonian

The Wolfsonian's smallest gallery
Photo: Richard Carreño/WritersClearinghouse News Service


Miami Beach, Florida |
I've always been wary of private museums founded by individuals -- always rich dudes with oversized egos -- who are eager to present their art their way.

Some of their institutions are above suspicion, ie. the Morgan in New York, the Rosenbach in Philadelphia, and the Huntington and Getty on the West Coast. (NB. All eponymously named). Others can get my goat, the like Barnes in Philly and the Gardner in Boston, endowed by patrons who were more bullies than quirky. Not, certainly, BFF candidates.

That said, I approached my first encounter at The Wolfsonian, a South Beach art preserve housed in an astounding 1927 Mediterranean Revival building, with some reserve.

First, the name, at first blush a pretentious knock-off allusion, of course, to the Smithsonian. Then, its subject matter, graphic design, decor, and propaganda from 1885 to 1945. (Very specific that). Then there's the collection's dedication to Thinkism, the museum's odd-ball slogan. Even Its creation, pretty much as an idea in 1986, and then financed in brick-and-mortar in 1993 by Mitchell 'Mickey' Wolfson Jr. conforms to the standard scenario. Rich dude? Check. Quirky? Check. Eponymous? Check.

'What man makes, makes man,' Mickey Wolfson envisioned as a guided mission. Hmm....

Thanks to Wolfson, was I in for a surprise. In a good way.

Even 'Thinkism' finally engages. Stay awhile. As you meld into a tour of the exhibits, the motto begins to make sense, even illuminate. The museum's name? Irony, of course.

Since the museum's debut, it has also affiliated with Florida International University, garnering the institution's academic props and status-raising imprimatur. (Yes, Wolfson himself is a FIU honcho).

Like a Smithsonian 'attic,' the Wolfsonian's seven-floor, 56,000-square-foot fully-restored space houses, culled from an overall collection of 120,000 objects, furniture, decorative arts, paintings, prints, and ephemera. A library gets a floor of its own. 

In all, it's a tight fit, given that the Wolfsonian also vigorously curates its own major thematic shows, shrinking space for the permanent collection. When I visited recently two installations, 'Modern Meals: Remaking American Foods from Farm to Kitchen' and 'Women in Motion: Fitness, Sport, and Female Figure,'  were being held simultaneously.

What's not on display in the Washington Avenue venue -- or can't be because of space constraints -- is stored in an annex elsewhere on the island. Another annex, actually an official Wolfsonian branch, is located in Genoa, Italy, where Wolfson maintains his primary residence. More overflow perchance?

Everything here and in Italy, according to the museum, foscuses on interpreting 'the critically important role of design at the height of the industrial age in the context of social, political, and technological issues.'

I fell for the museum's collection of posters, many of which promote war propaganda. Paintings include a retrospective of images of American workers in the 1930s. Not surprisingly, a Reginald Marsh picture gets displayed in this context.

Also, don't miss the building's pristine art deco elevator. Take a ride just to admire the interior.

There's another first, at least for me. How often can a museum boast that it's public toilet is, in fact, another museum 'gallery'? Though modern, the ground-floor uni-sex toilet, adjacent to the The Dynamo Museum Shop and Cafe (another blast!), is a Deco-themed marvel in black and white and stainless steel.

You bet, this place is quirky. But it's also brilliantly inspired by a man -- despite being a rich dude with an oversized ego -- who, in Florida and worldwide,  has to be any art lover's newest BBF. There's no 'thinkism' twice about that.