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. It contains objects produced by those who defied the process of industrialization as well as those who embraced it. Finely crafted furniture, built from local wood and other regional materials, attests to the threat felt by those who believed that industrial standardization would restrain human creativity.
While giving voice to these misgivings, the exhibition also contains mass-produced products for the home. Sleek radios, urns, and teakettles declare their designers' faith that stylistic diversity and quality would be maintained in industrial production.
"Celebrating Modernity," the show's second segment, displays art, posters, and objects that praise changes brought about through modernization. New modes of transportation and communication were presented as integral to the progress of civilization. The streamlined look also played a part in change. Designers fabricated ordinary objects with flowing, fluid contours, like airplanes, in the hope that smooth lines would quiet apprehensions about modernization.
The exhibition's final segment plainly demonstrates the uniqueness of the Wolfsonian in the world of art. "Manipulating Modernity: Political Persuasion" sweeps through the dark side of modernism. It displays nationalistic art and commodities produced in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia. New Deal American imagery is also included, notably representations of laborers earnestly working to advance production.
Where other art museums provide information about artists and art movements, the Wolfsonian highlights ideas instilled in artifacts. Rather than promoting the consistency of art moments, the Wolfsonian encourages viewers to see the paradoxical juxtaposition of elegant design and sometimes sinister ideas.
Although the Wolfsonian collection only extends to 1945, it is still up-to-date. The nationalism, concern for tradition, and political propaganda expressed by its collection still affect modern life.
While the inaugural show is traveling, visitors to the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach can view a new selection from the institution's permanent collection. "Art and Design in the Modern Age" engages the viewer with posters and objects from world fairs, labor movements, and political propaganda. Located only a few blocks from the ocean shore, the Wolfsonian is no day at the beach.
* 'The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945' is at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through May 18. The Indianapolis Museum of Art will host the show Jan. 25-April 5, 1998. After bookings in cities abroad, the exhibit will return to the Wolfsonian.