Exhibiting History and Endurance

One year ago last month the Wolfsonian opened its ornate gates on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach with much fanfare and a spectacular inaugural exhibition. "Designing Modernity: The Arts of Reform and Persuasion" has since embarked on an international tour. The show, which explores major modern social and political movements through furniture, historic building remnants, appliances, posters, and other objects and ephemera, has already garnered rave reviews in Los Angeles and at its current venue at the Seattle Art Museum (it goes to Pittsburgh in February).

While the Wolfsonian's debut exhibition has traveled triumphantly, the first year at home was a turbulent one for the fledgling museum and study center, marked by a financial crisis and staff cuts in the wake of the much-celebrated opening. After months of uncertainty, a deal with Florida International University to absorb the museum building and most of the Wolfson collection is expected to go through. If the state legislature approves a two-million-dollar appropriation in January, the university could take over operation of the nonprofit institution next July, when the funds are administered.

In a major development last month, Peggy Loar, the Wolfsonian's high-profile founding director, vacated her post. "I do feel I've done what I came here to do," Loar said in an interview in her expansive office a few days before her departure, "which was basically to take a private, relatively unknown collection in a subject area that wasn't really understood, collected, or researched and to create a strong professional infrastructure and hire the right people, manage to bring it to the attention of not only scholars and the general public, but the regional, national, and world community of art and design."

Loar and Wolfsonian board executive committee chairman Mike Holden both say that the director's contract, which expired October 31, was not renewed by "mutual agreement." But scuttlebutt in the local arts community and media reports has suggested that Loar's departure was encouraged by some members of the board who thought the Wolfsonian could no longer support the kind of expenditures the former director had encouraged in her quest for excellence, and that her $150,000 salary -- while not extreme for the director of a private foundation -- would be an inappropriately high compensation for a publicly funded, university-affiliated museum.

"I was brought here to advise Mr. Wolfson on how to build a state-of-the-art institution technologically, philosophically, culturally -- in any way that I could," Loar countered when asked about those rumors. "I wasn't the only person making those decisions [about how the museum should be built]. I obviously had the contacts and found the resources, and then we looked at the possibilities. My plan was, You don't build the security and the computerization for an institution for the next five years; you do it for the next fifty."

"Monday-morning quarterbacking is always easy," added Holden, when questioned whether some board members had criticized Loar's management. "I think the product speaks for itself."

The Wolfsonian is now offering a second survey culled from Wolfson's collection of 70,000 items dating from 1885 to 1945. "Art and Design in the Modern Age" presents an intriguing array of about 300 artifacts of the period, from the monstrous (a Braille copy of Mein Kampf) to the wonderfully mundane (a streamlined Kenmore vacuum cleaner with working headlights).

Like the inaugural show, the current display is a must-see for those interested in design, social history, and the relationship between the two. Really, it would be hard for anyone not to get excited about at least some of the wonderful finds included here: World's Fair paraphernalia, a World War II gas mask that fits into a specially designed pocketbook, architectural models by WPA artists, futuristic posters, and more. The exhibition also includes a charming children's gallery for pint-size design mavens. But this show does not live up to the exalted expectations created by the first exhibition. Because of budget constraints, a new gallery design could not be created to accommodate the current works; they have been fit into the same layout as the inaugural show. Some pieces of furniture have not been restored -- a chair looks shabby, a painted desk has not been stripped down to its original finish. While visitors to "Designing Modernity" had access to "acoustiguides" -- cell-phone-like devices that gave detailed recorded descriptions of each object -- museumgoers now can count only on minimal wall labels for information. The opening extravaganza and its accompanying 350-page catalogue were prepared over five years by a team of international scholars headed by former Wolfsonian curator Wendy Kaplan. This time there is no catalogue, and associate curator Marianne Lamonaca, who put together this exhibition, had confirmation only in August that the show would even go on.

"We spent the first six months of this year creating austerity programs and trying to figure out how to keep the museum going," explained Loar. She had been associated with the Wolfsonian since 1987, when Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., hired her away from her post as head of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services to set up a private nonprofit institution funded primarily with the Wometco heir's millions. No expense was spared in transforming the former Washington Avenue storage facility to house a state-of-the art research and study center, exhibition galleries, offices, an auditorium, a gift shop, and a library. A nearby BellSouth substation building is used for conservation and storage. Every object in the inventory is recorded on CD-ROM, and a fellowship program was initiated in 1993 to enable visiting scholars to make use of the collection that Wolfson began accumulating nearly 30 years ago.

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