MICKY WOLFSON: THE GREAT PERSUADER

CITIZEN KANE WITHOUT THE MELANCHOLY | August 10th 2008

Art.view
Wolfsonian Museum

Micky Wolfson started collecting objects as a child. His enormous collection of decorative and propaganda art is meant to herald “the birth of the contemporary world.” Paula Weideger talks to the man about his museums and obsessions ...

From ECONOMIST.COM

There is something of Citizen Kane about Mitchell Wolfson, junior, a 68-year-old art collector widely known as Micky, but Kane without the melancholy. Mr Wolfson, who has the manner and manners of a southern gentleman, not only collects on a stupendous scale, he entertains himself and guests with brio.

Take, for example, his two comfortably appointed old-fashioned railway carriages which, before a recent hurricane destroyed them, were attached to trains that took him and his friends around the United States in high style. They'd stop to go to the opera and trawl for antiques. And more antiques.

Mr Wolfson has so far bought around 125,000 objects, including paintings, sculptures, posters, books, ceramics, furniture (sometimes entire rooms, including ceilings), jukeboxes, silver teapots, staircases, model ocean-liners, a bicycle made entirely of wood and the sumptuously tiled and gilded walls of movie palaces. All were related to design, decorative and propaganda art. He kept his collection in a warehouse in Miami Beach, his hometown.

He started buying as a child, but his collection really took off in 1983, when his father (who built the Wometco entertainment empire) died, leaving a reported billion-dollar estate.

Mr Wolfson realised that almost everything he owned was made between 1880 and 1945. He started limiting his purchased to these decades, which one of his curators describes as "the birth of the contemporary world."

Now Mr Wolfson reckons that his choice of dates was wrong. "For the evolution of design history, they should have been 1848 to 1989." But he adds philosophically, "I stick to my fiction"--perhaps because buying just to fill gaps would bore him. He buys objects that he feels he has to have, often less for their beauty than for their historical and documentary value.

For over 20 years, Mr Wolfson has lived for about half the year in the house on Biscayne Bay where he grew up. He spends several months in Genoa, where he's had a home for 40 years. But these are perches rather than nests: Mr Wolfson, always on the look out for treasures, travels a lot.

In 1986, he began publishing the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, a respected and award-winning periodical. He also created two museums. The Wolfsonian, in Miami Beach (this tongue-in-check play on Smithsonian is intended), is housed in the building where he stored his collection. "The owner told me I had to buy it or get out," he said. In 1997, he donated the museum and three-fourths of its 100,000 objects to Florida International University (the other quarter is theirs on loan).

In 2005, Wolfsoniana opened in Nervi, Genoa with a collection of 20,000 artefacts, all Italian. Here too Mr Wolfson--who clearly understands the value of retaining partial control when it comes to prodding museum bureaucracies--owns and lends a quarter of them; the rest belongs to the region of Liguria.

For all this accumulation, gaps remain: there is no jewellery, for instance, or clothing. There are no films or photographs ("I didn't know how to maintain them," he says). The Bauhaus is missing entirely and so is Marcel Breuer. "I didn't like it," he says. "No ornament. Too cultish, self-conscious. I wanted the other side of the coin."

He continues to buy in his period, but the museum collections will no longer be limited to it. Artists and other collectors will give and lend; directors will have their own ideas and ambitions. Mr Wolfson, who says he's an egotist in other respects, genuinely seems not to mind.

He affectionately says that Wolfsoniana's three young Italian curators "don't tow the line." The line he means is his. No doubt the pill is sweetened by his knowledge that they remain devoted (if not slavishly so) to the collection, and to him.

(Paula Weideger is a London-based journalist and author. Her most recent book is "Venetian Dreaming". The Art.view column appears every week on Economist.com.)