Mussolini Over Miami

WE'RE FUTURISTS," SAYS MITCHELL Wolfson Jr., who looks like a younger version of Schweppes's Commander Whitehead, of his brand-new museum and its staff. "If you want to know what we are, you have to go back to Marinetti." Really? Filippo Marinetti, the war-loving Italian poet who wrote of Mussolini: "Futurist eloquence, well masticated by teeth of steel, plastically sculpted by his intelligent hand that shaves off the useless clay of hostile opinions"? No, not really--we hope. Wolfson, the 56-year-old heir to an $84 million share of his late father's media fortune, is merely caught up with enthusiasm for The Wolfsonian (no "Museum," but the echo of "Smithsonian" intended), which opened last week in an elegantly renovated 1927 warehouse in Miami Beach.

The catch--or the hook--is that a great many of The Wolfsonian's 70,000 "art and design" items, ranging from matchbook covers to oil paintings, are propaganda pieces from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The museum calls such stuff "political design." A lot of it comes from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Hence the esthetic jones that Wolfson has for Marinetti ... and other talented artists who willingly served evil masters.

A bigger, and more pertinent, question is: can a museum loaded with this kind of art attract a large and sympathetic audience, not only in somewhat sleepy, heavily Jewish Miami Beach, but nationally, and among the mandarins of "real art" institutions? Curator Wendy Kaplan, one of the young, impeccably credentialed staff Wolf-son has hired away from establishment museums, says, "We're in a delicate balance, because we're a museum of material culture. Our concern is what objects say about the people who made them, and the people who used them. But our bias is that good design is more powerful than bad design."

The museum's first exhibition, "The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945"--256 objects drawn almost entirely from The Wolfsonian's holdings--will be an instant bellwether. Although the show leads with the 19th-century arts and crafts movement and treks delicately through art deco, its punchiest section is "Manipulating Modernity: Political Persuasion." Item: "New People," a poster for the 1938 calendar put out by the notorious Racial Policy Office of the Nazi Party, showing a chiseled, blond Aryan family by the sea. Item: "The Conquest of Abyssinia," a 1936 board game distributed by an Italian baby-food company to help convince children that war isn't all that scary. Item: a 1924 Soviet ceramic plate, appetizingly inscribed "He Who Does Not Work Does Not Eat." The good guys can be heavy-handed, too: "Work to Keep Free!" a wartime U.S. poster, features an upraised fist clenching a hammer. (It's a duplicate of "Work Triumphs," a 1935 Nazi poster, except that its swastika-less tool casts a shadow of Lady Liberty's torch.)

Oddly, The Wolfsonian assumes that none of the graphically crisp, rhetorically grandiose Fascist and Nazi propaganda art is dangerous, simply because it's now in a museum, alongside democracy's rebuttals. Nevertheless, The Wolfsonian "strongly encourages" everybody who pays the $7 admission fee to watch a fairly effective eight-minute introductory video that, among other things, calls Nazism "monstrous." It also furnishes visitors with a state-of-the-art audio guide that puts about a third of the exhibition's works into a context that, says Kaplan, demonstrates that "we ourselves aren't proselytizing, but only showing the power of design to convince people."

If the public concurs, then The Wolfsonian will have only self-sufficiency to worry about. Wolfson wants to phase out his underwriting. He plans a seagoing sabbatical that will take him from Genoa to Vladivostok. "I am trying to reproduce in 1996 a trip you could have made at the end of the last century," he says. Yep, back before all those creepy posters and board games started showing up.