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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.

Even as the Wolfsonian was preparing to open, the financial problems had begun. "We weren't sure we could get the doors open because of the budget situation," Loar revealed. "But we cut the budget and we raised more money. The staff commitment and the trustee commitment were amazing." Loar said that once the Wolfsonian opened its doors, she had accomplished what she had set out to do and thought of moving on. But she decided to stay to see the institution through the hard times ahead. In June Loar laid off 13 of the 28 employees, letting go those with higher salaries like curator Wendy Kaplan, and keeping middle management staff like associate curator Lamonaca. Loar took a voluntary twenty percent pay cut, and when the museum closed in July to save on operating costs, she forfeited her salary for the month. At the end of July, the City of Miami Beach awarded the Wolfsonian a $500,000 emergency grant. Some local residents were outraged that a private museum, built to house a millionaire's personal property, was receiving public funds. One letter to the Miami Herald compared the loan to "throwing our tax dollars down a rathole."

The Wolfsonian, which had a budget of $3.3 million in 1995, has trimmed down the operating budget to $1.7 million for next year. The museum has received some grants and donations, but fundraising had been difficult because Wolfson had been reluctant to hand over his collection to the public domain -- most of the inventory has been on permanent loan to the museum.

"Initially, Mr. Wolfson and I sat down and had some very frank conversations," related Loar, who knew early on that Wolfson would have to donate the collection if he wanted outside support. "I told him, 'If you continue in a private way you'll get people interested in visiting the Wolfsonian because of your name, but it's going to be very difficult to fundraise in the public sector because people who give up their money want to have some say in how it's spent and it needs to be in the public trust.'"

"It was a Catch-22," Wolfson agreed. "I wouldn't give the things outright until I had a sense of establishment, and I couldn't get established because people thought the project was too ambiguous, and we couldn't create our own public foundation because my name was attached to it. We had to get in bed with an honest- to-goodness public institution."

Initial talks with the University of Florida did not result in an agreement. FIU showed more interest. "We had a number of talks with the foundation and Mr. Wolfson about a partnership to take care of the operation of the building and the collection," said Paul Gallagher, FIU vice president for advancement. "For the most part those issues have been worked out. I'm very optimistic."

While negotiations continue with FIU, Cathy Leff is acting as the Wolfsonian's interim director. Leff has managed Wolfson's corporate and business interests and is the publisher and executive editor of the Wolfson Foundation's Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. She plans to incorporate the journal as a house organ of the Wolfsonian and to bring more people into the building by organizing conferences and other activities. Since the building opened there have been 35,000 visitors, a figure Loar said would have been higher if she had had a larger budget for advertising and promotion.

"This is not an art museum, it's an educational resource," said Leff. "My priority is to raise funds to keep the programs going and to try to bring some of the staff who were laid off back so we can do a little bit more until the transition goes through. I'm committed to seeing this FIU deal go through, and to the Wolfsonian's survival. I'll do whatever it takes."

The morning after the exhibition opening last week, there were no outward signs of strife at the Wolfsonian. Even before the museum opened, a half-dozen people waited outside the gates to go inside the imposing foyer, where a huge statue of FDR lies in a packing crate, and ride in the stone-paneled elevator to the fifth-floor galleries.

As for Wolfson himself, he seemed to have never had any doubts about the Wolfsonian's future. "I think it will be the greatest humanistic center in the year 2000," he proclaimed, "and that's a big statement. But you don't bust like the Venus from a seashell. You need years to build up a museum. In one year the contributions, the interest on the part of FIU to incorporate us into their programs -- it's breathtaking. There are no negatives, it's just fantastic. There are no icebergs in sight. It looks like we're going to cross the Atlantic -- to cross Miami, rather -- full speed ahead."

Art and Design in the Modern Age: Selections from the Wolfsonian Collection. Ongoing. The Wolfsonian, 1001 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 531-1001.


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