The Wolfsonian's New Director, Timothy Rodgers, on What's Next for the Museum

For Timothy Rodgers, the newly appointed director of the Wolfsonian-FIU, stepping into the role at the university-run art museum was a dream come true. "I've known about the Wolfsonian-FIU since very early on in my career, when they published my very first article in the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, so I go all the way back to 1989. It was a very important moment for me," Rodgers says. Undoubtedly, Rodgers' academic background will aid his tenure at the Wolfsonian, a museum internationally renowned for its sizable collection of modern decorative arts.

He comes with not only interests ready-made to helm the museum but also an impressive resumé. Rodgers was a professor of contemporary art and art history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, chief curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and most recently director of the Stetson Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona before accepting the position at the Wolfsonian-FIU earlier this year.

"We are not making judgment. The collection we hold is populist. We have toasters, for goodness' sake! We can't get all haughty here."

tweet this

New Times sat down with Rodgers to discuss his new role, his plans for increasing the museum's visibility, and the role he wants the Wolfsonian to play in Miami's arts community.

New Times: As a relative newcomer, what are some observations you would make about the arts community in Miami?
Timothy Rodgers: I think a true arts community should have a profound impact on all levels of the community. I don't think it should just be about a wealthy collecting group. And I think in Miami, that's a group that's been given a great deal of attention and it's spurred a lot of activity, but a real arts community goes all the way down. When that starts to happen, I think that all people in this city will feel that this is for their good and their betterment and that they can all participate.

What are you doing to make the Wolfsonian more inclusive?
My idea is not to get the people in the flip-flops and bathing suits to go home and change; I want them to come in. We are here for you. We are not making judgment. The collection we hold is populist. We have toasters, for goodness' sake! We can't get all haughty here.

What sets the Wolfsonian apart from other local institutions?
We don't start from a place of obtuseness and then try to break it down to a level that people will understand. We start with things that people literally hold, and then we build on their understanding of that. It's a natural process, and it's fun for us too. I think one of the things that's remarkable about the Wolfsonian-FIU is that it allows people to move in different directions, and I think you really get a sense of that.

There isn't another institution in town that has the strength of curators like the Wolfsonian-FIU, but we need it because we're covering a very vast area in a contentious time period that is not settled in the past. It's still very much alive, so we need to poke and prod it from all different directions.

How will your directorial style continue to reinforce that method?
Because we're dealing with complex questions and dealing with complex materials, I want to give my people enough freedom so they can explore that in different ways. I think it's important as a director not to sit on that. There are a lot of directors who become very controlling and want to insist on a certain way of thinking, being, and creating, and I think that's a real mistake with creative people.

The museum's former director, Cathy Leff, was here for almost 20 years. She had a profound and lasting impact on the institution. How will you be different?
I thought Cathy was extremely good at thinking outside of the box and bringing an entrepreneurial mind to a museum. I think I come at this from a very different angle — having been a professor for many years, having done a PhD in this field. This is my field. I wrote a dissertation on this period on decorative arts in the 1920s and 1930s. I come at it from a different background, which I think will inevitably influence the decisions I make.

What are some of the major decisions you'll make in the coming years?
The Wolfsonian-FIU is in a very enviable position since the county has given us the bonds that they hold and will release to us. We have the ability to tap into $10 million in order to create 25,000 square feet of public space. We are only at the beginning of working that out to determine what that would look like. We've developed some conceptual plans to see whether or not we might want to expand this building, but we're looking at other options as well. Miami-Dade County has provided us this money, so we have the option to look broadly.

What are some of the areas you're considering?
FIU is certainly one of those areas, and we also have land next to us, but we're on the Beach. Not to make a declaration about climate change, but we need to look at recent examples. If you want a museum collection to last for the next 100,000 years — and that's always the thinking for museums — the Beach is probably not the best place to hold those objects.

How soon do you expect to complete this expansion?
It's a lengthy process; there are a lot of approvals that have to occur. We are part of the university, so they have their own process, and then we have an internal process to ensure it will satisfy the multitude of needs we have here, so I would say the fastest would be three to five years.

And there's yet another major initiative you're taking on, which is ushering the museum into a digital space.
Yes, we're digitizing our collection, so we're creating photographs and connecting data to those images, which is a harder task, but it helps scholars on our website gain information on each object. We're looking at other initiatives as well, such as creating a digital lab on our premises so people can experience our collection digitally in our building, so they would have more access to what it is we hold. It's one thing to say we have 180,000 objects; the reality is that most people will see only a tiny fraction, so we'd like to broaden that horizon as much as possible.

That's quite an undertaking.
It's an immense undertaking. It's one thing to photograph every object, but it's another to accompany it with research, and that's going to take teams of people. But one of the exciting things is that the world has opened up so much that our teams can exist outside of this museum itself. There are other experts all over the world who could be able to provide information to us that even on our best days we wouldn't be able to find. I think that's also part of what we're hoping to do — create a larger community of collectors and scholars who can feed us information about our collection so we can start to add that to what we know.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nicole Martinez
Contact: Nicole Martinez