Field Trip to Miami’s World Erotic Art Museum
An interview with Naomi Wilzig
By Kit Ames
What was your grandmother doing when she turned 70? Kicking back with grandpa? Taking up bridge or shuffleboard? Or was she fighting a battle against sexual repression in America by establishing the United States’ first erotic art museum?
If you answered yes to the last question, you are either a liar, or the lucky grandchild of Naomi Wilzig—the creator, director, and owner of the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM). After accumulating a private collection of over 4,000 pieces of erotic art, she founded the museum in 2005, at the age of 70. Over the last eight years, the WEAM has become something of a cultural institution, even earning the key to the city of Miami in 2006.
I had the pleasure of visiting WEAM last spring. That museum has it all: an ornate bed with Kama Sutra images carved into it, a giant golden penis, knickknacks—like watches or boxes—that were used to hide sexy images during the Victorian Era, the ceramic penis-turned-murder weapon from A Clockwork Orange, erotic works by Picasso and Rembrandt, and so much more. The pieces range from breathtakingly beautiful to charming and naughty to downright lewd and crude. What you really take away from the experience at WEAM is the feeling that despite the decade or culture, sex and sexual pleasure is a core part of being human. It created us after all. But we continually repress our own sexuality and shame those who are open about theirs, especially in the United States. Naomi Wilzig is seeking to change all that with her museum, and was kind enough to answer a few questions about her efforts to bring erotic art into the mainstream.
What changes have you seen in the United States art world since WEAM was established?
WEAM has been open for 8 years. There is much more nudity and eroticism displayed openly in galleries and antique shows than when I first started collecting in 1992.
Many of the ads in magazines now show nudity, all types of sexual orientation, and promiscuity to invite people to experience a “better existence” though their products.
Do you think the United States is becoming more accepting of erotic art or is the vast amount of accessible porn making it harder for genuine erotic art to be taken seriously?
Unfortunately the American public confuses the two subjects and thinks erotic art is a synonym for porn. It’s an educational experience when they come into WEAM and see the difference.
You faced a lot of adversity, first with collecting art, then with getting a location to display the art. What’s so important about this collection that motivated you to not give up?
The American public accepted violence and murder in our movies, TV, and printed matter. Yet they balk at the idea of a nude body or sexuality. Through the art collection, we are illustrating the world of love and sexual practices that are essential to life. We show the beauty of the body and genitalia. We emphasize the fertility rites that were essential to keep communities from dying out. It’s life as we live it, and the acceptance of it. I emphasize that all practices should be with consenting adults. I am particularly proud that most of the local colleges and universities send their human sexuality and art classes here to experience the museum, to see how the artists present and interpret what they study and research in their class work.
What kind of role do you think erotic art plays in people’s lives?
It gives credibility and acceptance to people’s fantasies, experiences, thoughts, dreams.
Do you think erotica helps or affects people’s sex lives?
It definitely helps. It answers questions and removes fallacies. It illustrates that many things people do are acceptable in people’s lives.
WEAM has so many pieces, it’s almost overwhelming. What is your favorite room and why?
The Leda room. It holds the Greek and Roman mythology artworks, the memories of Pompeii, antiquities showing sex acts and relics that are thousands of years old, and several other unique artworks.
The collection of Lada and the Swan art reveals how artists worldwide can interpret the same myth according to their own medium and experience.
I’m sure you get all kinds of rude or wacky guests. Do you have a story about a visitor that’s your personal favorite?
A group of four Jewish women came to town for the tennis matches. They decided to check us out. Then they hesitated to come in, thinking someone would see them going into an unsavory place. They then saw my mezuzah (Jewish symbolic piece for good fortune) on the doorway, and decided the place can’t be so bad, as they laughingly recounted to me.
What’s next for WEAM? Any special events or exhibitions?
We are always looking for new artists, particularly of various ethnic backgrounds. We portray collections that depict various alternative lifestyles. We now have our annual Josephine Baker exhibit up for Black history month. We still have our George Daniell photography on display. In April, we will display the works of Tomi Ungerer, who went from fame for illustrating children’s books, to disdain for creating imaginative erotic drawings.
It was truly an honor that Ms. Wilzig would even give me the time of day, much less a full interview. Naomi Wilzig is truly an amazing and passionate person whose art collection and museum is helping to move society toward viewing sex the way it ought to be viewed: as something natural, and something to be celebrated.