'The Wolfsonian' Is Hottest Addition to Miami's Modern Art Scene

By Mary Warner Marien, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

'The Wolfsonian' Is Hottest Addition to Miami's Modern Art Scene


Mary Warner Marien, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The Museum of Modern Art is in New York City, but the museum of modernity is in Miami Beach, Fla.

Located in the justly famous Art Deco district of the city, the recently opened Wolfsonian focuses on the ways in which the decorative arts reflect European and American efforts to understand the modern experience. More than 70,000 objects, including posters, furniture, ceramics, glass, and works on paper, as well as paintings and sculpture, run the gamut from fine art to articles used in everyday life.

The name Wolfsonian comes from a playful combination: the name of its founder, Mitchell Wolfson Jr., and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. To heighten the resemblance, "museum" is not used in the official name. Indeed, museum may not be the best term for this establishment. In the fine arts, various avant-garde groups, like the Expressionists and the Cubists, invented new visual approaches to painting and sculpture. Their work forms the basis of our understanding of modern art and the core of modern-art collections. Nevertheless, the full range of visual responses to the modern experience has been neglected. What holds the Wolfsonian collection together is not an aesthetic viewpoint. Instead, the collection centers on the diverse attempts of designers to interpret and even direct the vast social, political, and industrial changes that took place in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Design responses to mass production, communications, and transportation are central at the Wolfsonian. Posters and advertising for new inventions like the telephone and the automobile form the backdrop for furniture, games, and dinner ware. Intriguing as these individual artifacts are, the Wolfsonian's mission is not simply to display objects. The museum's goal is to educate the public about the ways in which objects of design may be steeped with ideas - and ideologies. Because the Wolfsonian emphasizes material culture, not high culture, its educational purpose is doubly broad. While instructing the general public about the strategies ideas take when they are incorporated into objects of design, the Wolfsonian must also educate educators on the importance of material culture. True to the institution's global scope, the powerful opening show, "The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945," is now traveling the United States, with future bookings in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The exhibition clusters design objects in three chronological sections. The first portion, "Confronting Modernity," encompasses the period from 1885 to World War I. …

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