Visual Arts

With donation, Wolfsonian expands to Miami’s downtown

About 16 years ago, prolific collector Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr. transferred his accumulation of historically significant furniture, paintings, sculptures, posters, books, trinkets, household goods, machinery and other artifacts — along with the building that housed them — to Florida International University.

And then he went out and acquired more. And then even more, until 20,000 square feet spread across three floors of an office condominium in downtown Miami were packed with some 25,000 items.

Now, history is repeating itself.

Wolfson, 73, will donate the $1.5 million downtown Miami space known as the Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Study Centre, as well as the objects that fill it, to the Wolfsonian—Florida International University on July 1.

A value of the objects has yet to be determined.

“It’s priceless, because they’re artifacts that are not available anywhere else in any other collection, in any other city, they could not be reassembled or replaced,” said Cathy Leff, the museum’s director. “So how do you place a value on something like that?”

The gift means the Miami Beach institution that Wolfson founded will add a downtown satellite for students, history buffs, researchers and members of the public who want to browse the shelves of rare books, Arts and Crafts-style furniture, paintings and other objects including a large jeweled turkey. The Wolfsonian—FIU focuses on decorative objects created between 1885 and 1945 with an emphasis on the industrial revolution, global conflict and modernization.

“Once again, FIU benefits from the generosity of Micky Wolfson,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg in a statement. “Micky continues to demonstrate his trust in FIU as an institution, and we could not be more pleased with the gift or more proud to receive it and share it.”

Wolfson, who refers to himself as a preservationist (and also refers to his “hoards”), collects the items from antique shops, flea markets, dealers and other contacts around the United States and Europe. He said he hopes the museum’s downtown campus will serve as another educational resource along with other artistic and historic institutions in the area.

“History is just being born in Miami,” he said. “And I hope that all this intellectual, cultural, artistic energy and activity will help to give us the history that we want to make us a real substantial world-class city.”

Leff said the transition from private collection to public institution will require much work, including installing new security systems, hiring the right number of staffers, outfitting the museum’s technology systems and figuring out the best ways and times to invite groups to tour. Educational courses that use the site will start in the fall, but Leff said a time frame for broader public access to the center is still unknown.

The experience at the downtown location is much different from the curated environment at the museum at 1001 Washington Ave., Leff said. Wolfson’s longtime collection manager, Lea Nickless, described the Miami site as “open storage.”

“You get a better idea of the collector when you come here,” Nickless said. “You get the sense of his personality.”

Leff said the donation came about after a conversation during which Wolfson warned her that the Wolfsonian couldn’t have one object until it could accept all of them — a challenge for the current site and its annex in Miami Beach, which have about 120,000 objects in 90,000 square feet.

“I said, ‘That’s impossible. Why don’t you just give it to us the way it is?” Leff said. “It’s fantastic and it’s such an incredible opportunity to provide insight into how he amassed his collection.”

In a phone interview from Paris, Wolfson said Friday that he had always intended to pass the recently amassed collection on to the Wolfsonian.

“I intend that the next collection goes to the Wolfsonian too, of which there is a large amount,” he said.

Make that large and growing. Asked if he had finished hunting and gathering, Wolfson gave an adamant no.

“You must be joking,” he said, before describing a trip earlier Friday to a flea market in Paris. “Would you like to know what I bought today?”