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A living legend turns 80

A living legend turns 80

Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr. got the star treatment at a block party in his honor.

November 15, 2019 at 9:00am

Miami Beach celebrated the Most Interesting Man in the World on Thursday night with a birthday extravaganza that served as a heartfelt “thank you” from the city and the university.

Lights strung across the intersection of 10th Street and Washington Avenue set a festive atmosphere as electric orchestra Nu Deco Ensemble and the FIU Marching Band entertained the crowd. Chocolate chip cookies wrapped in paper imprinted with the guest of honor’s visage made a delicious party favor. And several hundred well-wishers, among them families with children in strollers, gathered to listen to words of praise from a grateful community.

Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr.—bon vivant, obsessive collector, outrageously generous donor—accepted his rightful moment in the spotlight.

“We appreciate Mr. Wolfson’s philanthropy and support,” FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said before taking the podium. “More importantly, we appreciate his love of history, the value he has placed on preserving unique artifacts and his support of scholarship. His dedication to fostering the life of the mind will stand as his forever legacy."

Wolfson, now 80, grew up in incredible wealth in Miami Beach—father Mitchell Wolfson Sr. founded a movie theater chain and Florida’s first television station—and after grad school in the mid-1960s served for five years as the U.S. vice consul in Genoa, Italy.

But it is his lifetime of travel and acquisition that have defined the man. He made his mark as someone with the eye and the means to secure both the highly prized and the sometimes overlooked, and then gave much of that bounty to FIU. In 1997, he turned over to the university an estimated 80,000 items as well as the 1920s-era building in which he housed many of them. The largest in-kind gift ever recorded in Florida, the donation created the Wolfsonian-FIU.

The exhibition, research and education center in South Beach highlights the persuasive power of art and design by bringing together objects created from the height of the Industrial Revolution until the end of the Second World War, a time of great technological advancement as well as social and cultural upheaval of cataclysmic proportions. Among the varied treasures: the first mass-produced home appliances, early movie cameras, modernist dinnerware, Irish stained glass, World's Fair memorabilia and Soviet propaganda posters. Also in the holdings: a six volume set of Mein Kampf in braille and grillwork featuring a swastika that was used to decorate a German building.

“I think that for Micky, it’s very important that people keep in mind that art has been as frequently used to create something that we consider beautiful and good as something we consider horrific and horrible,” said Timothy Rodgers, museum director. “He collected everything that humans made because he recognized that what humans make represents their thinking and the time in which it was made. Art is a tool of these kind of larger ideas and larger movements.”

Still going strong, Wolfson most often purchases items from antiques and rare-book dealers although he has also ducked into shops or met directly with families who let him peek into their attics and then make a deal. On occasion, he has even acquired items headed for the junk heap. One famous example: a circa 1930 set of luxury furniture created for the first- and second-class waiting rooms of the central railway station in Milan, where Wolfson one evening in 1989 coincidentally found himself face to face with workers about to dispose of it all. When he inquired if he could have the castoffs, they agreed but only on the condition that he quickly get them out of the way to make room for incoming replacements. Through his local connections, Wolfson, remarkably, found an overnight resting spot for the bulky items, and they eventually made their way to the United States for restoration and a home on the museum’s second floor.

(A portion of the set has since returned to Italy and resides in Genoa, at the Wolfsoniana museum, to which Wolfson donated some 20,000 artifacts of Italian origin. It opened in 2005 and is considered a sister institution to the Wolfsonian-FIU.)

The museum welcomes as many as 40,000 visitors through its doors annually—and another roughly 100,000 online at its website, where 180,000-plus digitized images are available—which includes everyday folks as well as students and scholars from around the world.

David Rifkind teaches courses in architectural history, theory and design at FIU and writes about Fascist Italy and its relationship to Africa. The Wolfsonian-FIU has facilitated his work through two research fellowships, one of which allowed him to travel to Rome as part of the institution’s active support of scholarship related to its collection.

“The Wolfsonian-FIU has materials that you will not find anywhere else,” Rifkind said. “Very often archives will only collect things that speak more about official culture. The Wolfsonian-FIU has that but also things like children’s games and popular magazines and restaurant menus that give you a sense of what life was like at a particular time. It’s been invaluable for my research.”

Wolfson continues to feed the beast by sending furniture and other large items from Europe as he collects them—his primary home is in Paris—and twice annually arrives in Miami with a suitcase full of books and other finds. His commitment has encouraged other collectors and organizations to permanently park their own prized possessions at the museum. A recent donation of $2.5 million worth of rare books from a gallery in New York is just one example of how the original collection has expanded as the institution’s international reputation has grown.

At the most basic level, Wolfson’s nearly seven decades of collecting—he started at age 12 during a family trip abroad—has an impact on anyone willing to take a look. The newly unveiled exhibition “A Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects” drew especial interest on Thursday night as Wolfson himself had a hand in its curation. It will remain open to the public through November 15, 2020. 

Deborah Giarratana of Wellington visited the museum for the first time and found herself strolling in rapt amazement for the better part of 45 minutes. 

“The vastness and the broadness of this collection is just astonishing. There’s just so much to see,” she said. “I can’t wait to come back.” 

Upon her return, she added, she hopes to bring along her artist mother as well as her 18-year-old son. “He wants to be an engineer and has an engineer’s mind, and I’m looking at some of the stuff knowing that he’s going to want to see this. Like this chair over here,” she said, pointing to an ornate wooden folding chair manufactured by the Ohio-based George S. Stewart Co. around 1905. “It’s art but it’s also a piece of culture. It’s a piece of engineering from human history that should not be ignored. We can all learn from simple things like this.”