Kansas City's National Museum Of Toys And Miniatures Celebrates The World's Smallest Artworks

Sep 13, 2017

Tiny works by 68 artists from around the world, on display this weekend at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, can help us understand "what defines us as humans,” according to the museum's director.

To host this special exhibit celebrating all things small, the museum partnered with the International Guild of Miniature Artisans for a juried showcase of fine-scale miniatures.

More than half of the artists selected for the juried showcase have works in the museum’s permanent collection, a result of efforts by museum co-founder Barbara Marshall, who began purchasing minute furniture, animals and architectural objects in the 1950s. Today it is the world’s largest collection of fine-scale miniatures.

Taylor holds 'Cassone,' an Italian Renaissance marriage chest by American artist Natasha Beshenkovsky.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

"When she commissioned work she asked (the artists) to make their dream work. So it wasn’t about what she wanted, it was about furthering the art form,” says Laura Taylor, the museum's curator of interpretation. “The show is really about honoring Barbara Marshall and the special relationship she had with the artists.”

Seeing the collection with fresh eyes is Petra Kralickova, the museum’s new executive director, who has been in Kansas City since mid-July after coming from the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Our audience can learn so much about history, so much about art, so much about architecture, science, and our own common experiences," Kralickova says, "as well as the physical things that we collect and we have and what defines us as humans.”

Danish artist Jens Torp created this 2 1/2 inch tall 'Candelabrum Centerpiece' in 2008. Work from artists featured in the showcase will be highlighted throughout the museum's permanent collection.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

For the price of a regular admission, museum visitors can also meet many of the miniature artists in town for the exhibit, some of whom are giving gallery talks about their work.

One of those artists is Althea Crome, a small-scale knitting artist from Bloomington, Indiana, who created a special piece for the show: a tiny Christmas sweater based on a medieval triptych in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With more than 70 different colors, the Nativity scene has about 64 stitches to the inch (a full-sized sweater might have 5-8 stitches per inch).

Crome says enjoys the challenge of creating little things, but the work takes a toll.

“Sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it hurts,” says Crome. “My fingers hurt, my back hurts. The ergonomics of the whole thing is difficult, but the satisfaction that you get from being able to achieve something that, for many, seems impossible. It’s the same thing that an Olympian wants. They want to break the record. They want to see how far they can go.”

Taylor carefully adjusts a small ceramic work by Lee-Ann Chellis Wessell.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

To honor the founder of the collection, artists selected for the exhibition were invited to submit one piece for the Barbara Marshall Award for Artistic Achievement.

The new award has created a stir, says Kansas City artist William R. Robertson, who specializes in 17th and 18th century decorative arts, scientific instruments and tools.

“I’m getting lots of calls every day from collectors who are coming from all over,” says Robertson, who is co-chair of the exhibition. “Some haven’t been to a major miniature show in many, many years because they were getting a little bored. This has certainly woken up everyone.”

At just under two inches, this 'Japanese Porcelain Imari Bowl' is a collaboration between Torp and Dutch artist Henny Staring-Egberts.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Over the years, Taylor says, Marshall played a critical role in shaping the way small works are perceived.

“There are so many artists, when they speak of Barbara Marshall, it’s with a sense that she changed their lives, that she gave them that first little push that they needed in order to be able to recognize themselves as serious artists,” says Taylor. “She refined my eye and my aesthetic. So I am really excited to honor her by honoring the artists.”

Miniature Masterworks,” September 15-17 at the The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, 5235 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-235-8000.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.