Leff’s Accomplishments Pave Way for Next Generation

Long-term Wolfsonian director Cathy Leff, as announced several months ago, is stepping down as of April 1, 2014. Leff, who has been director of the museum since 1996, notes the timing is appropriate for both the institution and for her. In particular, the recent award of a $5 million lead gift from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the adoption of a new five-year plan designed to usher in the next phase in The Wolfsonian’s growth makes now a logical transition point, she explains.

“Institutions have character; they also have life cycles,” she says. “I have enormously enjoyed the challenge and honor of leading The Wolfsonian since late 1996, a time during which its definition gained clarity; equally rewarding has been helping to create and shape a path for its future.”

When Leff began as director, the museum was a brand-new institution without a track record, and with a collection that, as she notes, many perceived to be “odd.” Today, she is particularly proud of the museum’s rapid evolution to the point where “the collection is recognized as being singular and the strongest of its kind in the world. The museum staff, scholars, FIU faculty, and others have worked together to develop the institution into an esteemed museum and research center with a stellar reputation.”

Leff will continue to be affiliated with FIU as a senior fellow through September 2015. “It is with a full heart, and confidence in what has been established by many, that I turn over the reins of The Wolfsonian to the next generation of revolutionary evolutionists,” she says.

Leff’s many accomplishments during her tenure as director make for a very long list. Selected highlights include:

  • Negotiating the original agreement between Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. and Florida International University for the landmark donation of the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection and the historic Wolfsonian headquarters building, the largest gift to the State of Florida University System in its history
  • Overseeing the merger of The Wolfsonian into Florida International University
  • Raising more than $2 million to acquire The Wolfsonian’s Annex facility for Florida International University
  • Overseeing the development and growth of the museum and research center from a young to an established institution, involving growing the professional staff from approximately twelve to fifty-five and strengthening the reputation through consistently excellent exhibitions, publications, and scholarship
  • Leading the museum through initial accreditation and reaccreditation
  • Publishing the acclaimed Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts and overseeing its merger into Florida International University
  • Offering the research fellowship program and other academic exchanges; more than seventy scholars have been awarded fellowships
  • Creating strong partnerships and collaborations with other cultural organizations on the local, national, and international levels, including the alliance with the American Academy in Rome
  • Fostering academic ties with Florida International University and offering many opportunities for student and faculty research and teaching; the museum is recognized nationally as a model academic museum and was awarded a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to further these efforts
  • Overseeing further pivotal gifts from museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., including real estate adjacent to the museum, the downtown facility, and the promised collection gift
  • Leading three museum strategic plans
  • Developing the museum’s volunteer board
  • Masterminding the $10 million appropriation of funds through a county GOB program, and obtaining funding from the City of Miami Beach for a real estate master plan, currently underway
  • Overseeing the awards of many major grants, among them several NEA grants, and grants from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, State of Florida, Rockefeller Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Getty Foundation, and numerous other generous donors
  • Creating the infrastructure and overseeing the implementation of work on a robust online presence and future digital media strategy
  • Creating and instituting an annual ideas festival, Power of Design, which launches this month



The Wolfsonian’s director, Cathy Leff, at An Evening Aboard the S.S. Wolfsonian, February 21, 2014
Photo: World Red Eye