Wolfsonian focuses on industrial age

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MIAMI BEACH -- One of this country's most unusual and provocative art and design museums, the Wolfsonian, is in the heart of this city's Art Deco district at Washington Avenue and 10th Street, opposite the historical Astor Hotel.

The Wolfsonian, according to museum officials, houses one of the world's most important collections of decorative arts produced during the height of the industrial age, from 1885 to 1945, that reflect the social, political and technological issues of that turbulent period.

The seven-story structure housing the Wolfsonian is another of the city's many architectural monuments, a 1927 Mediterranean-Revival building. The former storage warehouse tends to inspire puzzled looks from beachgoers (The beach is only two blocks away.).

The museum was founded to exhibit, document and preserve the Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection, an assemblage of more than 70,000 objects from daily urban life, such as furniture, architectural models, memorabilia, posters, paintings, books and prints.

The permanent exhibition's 14 galleries contain what curators consider the collection's 200 most extraordinary modern art and design works, demonstrating the cultural impact of the visual arts on the modern world.

A centerpiece of the collection is a stunning eight-panel stained glass window, designed in 1926 by Irish artist Harry Clarke, that is permanently installed on the fifth floor.

The panel's lush colorations and bawdy literary scenes were considered offensive by the Irish government at the time of their creation, but the work has proven to be a major crowd-pleaser, according to curators.

The panel window was recently surrounded by two new cases of Celtic Revival jewelry and other objects that illustrate the Irish milieu of the 1920s.

Other prominent displays in the Wolfsonian explore major themes of contemporary society, including branding and design identity; visual propaganda and its role in politics and war, and the connection between graphics and new technologies.

Although the Wolfsonian was inaugurated publicly on a full scale late in 1995, the museum was actually founded in 1986, whereupon curators worked full-time to unpack, register, catalog, conserve and research the collection, which was then growing at the staggering rate of some 300 items per month.

In 1992, the building housing the collection was renovated and enlarged into the present seven-story, 56,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art museum.

The Wolfsonian became a division of Florida International University in 1997, following Mitchell Wolfson Jr.'s donation of his collection to the state of Florida.

Today the museum and university conduct joint programs, including lectures, film events and panel discussions.

The facility houses an auditorium, library, gift shop and conservation lab. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed on Wednesday.

Admission is $5 for adults; $3.50 for seniors, students and children ages 6 to 12. Admission is free on Tuesdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Michael Hughes, group sales manager, can arrange 90-minute, guided tours. The group rate is $5 and an advance notice of 21 days is requested.

For information, call (305) 531-1001; for program information, call: (305) 535-2631.

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