The Wolfsonian was founded in 1986 to exhibit, document, and preserve the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, a vast assemblage of objects that includes furniture, paintings, books, prints, industrial and decorative art objects, and ephemera. In 1997 it became a division of Florida International University (FIU), when Wolfson donated his collection and museum facility to the university, the largest gift ever contributed to a public university in Florida.
The museum explores through its exhibitions and special programs the critically important role of design from 1850–1950 in the context of social, political, and technological issues. From 1986 through 1993 museum staff members were committed primarily to registering, cataloguing, conserving, and researching objects in the collection. They were stored in a 1927 Mediterranean Revival building, which in 1992 was renovated and enlarged for the current museum—a seven-story, 56,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. Located at 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, this facility houses The Wolfsonian's auditorium, museum shop, and classroom (first floor), administrative offices (second and fourth floors), library (third floor), small objects and paintings (fourth floor), and exhibition galleries (fifth through seventh floors). A 28,000-square-foot, historic warehouse, also located in South Beach, houses the remaining object collections.
The Wolfsonian's first exhibition, Stile Floreale: The Cult of Nature in Italian Design, opened in 1988 at Miami-Dade Community College. In January 1993 The Wolfsonian opened a preview exhibition in its Miami Beach facility, entitled Design 1880-1945: The Modern Idiom. The Wolfsonian's research division also was established that year; it continues to administer a competitive fellowship program, facilitates collections access, and plays a leading role in the Association of Research Institutes in Art History (ARIAH), whose members include the National Gallery of Art, the Getty Research Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since its formation, The Wolfsonian's fellowship program has hosted dozens of scholars from North and South America, Europe, and Australia. In 2005 the museum signed an agreement with the American Academy in Rome for joint appointments for Wolfsonian fellows.
The Wolfsonian's full-scale public dimension was officially inaugurated in November 1995 with the opening of the renovated facility and the launch of the major touring exhibition The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945, which demonstrated the depth and breadth of the Wolfsonian collection and its concomitant themes. Featuring 256 objects from the permanent collection, its catalog garnered international recognition and won awards for excellence.
In 1997 The Wolfsonian became a department of Florida International University, following Mitchell Wolfson Jr.’s landmark donation of his collection, and its historic building, to the state. The Wolfsonian has become one of the world’s preeminent exhibitors of material culture, offering educational and research opportunities to a diverse community of cultural seekers and academics.
The Wolfsonian opened Art and Design in the Modern Age (1996), featuring some two hundred objects from the permanent collection. These galleries provide insight into the role of design as an agent and reflection of change, interpreting both the advent of modernity and the persistence of tradition. Each year The Wolfsonian offers several temporary exhibitions drawn from its collection as well as those on loan from national and international museums.
The Wolfsonian has developed an extensive array of academic and public programs, reaching an audience as broad and varied as its collection. Ongoing public programming is extensive, including school activities, community events, lectures, films, symposia and collaborative performing arts events. The Wolfsonian also collaborates with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Museum Education Program to develop additional school tours and curriculum materials. Programmatic objectives focus on building audiences within the public schools and the FIU communities, while advancing The Wolfsonian’s international scholarly reputation.
The museum’s extensive exhibitions and educational and public programs would not be possible without public and private support. The museum is continually awarded competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Carnival Foundation, Funding Arts Network, and the Cowles Charitable Trust, as well as occasional funding from institutions including the Getty Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation, The Furthermore program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Batchelor Foundation, and the Wells Fargo Foundation.