What Will Happen After These Tiny Doors Close?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

News of the Jan. 1 closing of the Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures never came as a formal announcement. Its founders and owners--estate planner Barry Kaye and his wife, Carole--never called a press conference.

In fact, visitors to the museum's Web site in early November became the first to learn that the Kayes planned to close the facility on Wilshire Boulevard, in the museum corridor that includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Craft and Folk Art Museum.

At about the same time, patrons of the museum's gift shop and doll gallery discovered a liquidation sale of the dolls, tiny furniture, clocks and building supplies. Originally priced from $1 to $150,000, all were marked down 50%.

For the Kayes, however, shutting down the collection--or at least extricating themselves from it--has been in the works for about a year. In 1999, the couple moved to Boca Raton, Fla., and began to consider options for the museum, which has been their personal project since 1992.

First, they talked to both city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County officials about donating the collection, but a deal couldn't be struck. Then they thought about packing it up and moving it with them to Florida. They were on the verge of pinning down a location when Carole Kaye, the museum's very hands-on manager, changed her mind.

"I just decided I didn't want to go through it all again; I was tired. . . . I was going to take my life easy from this point on," she said.

Now, the collection--which attracts almost 100,000 visitors a year and which Carole Kaye says cost $25 million to amass--is up for sale. At least two "major people" are interested in buying the collection in its entirety. While they would not disclose names, the Kayes said that one of the parties has proposed housing the collection somewhere in California, whereas the other would move it to another location somewhere in the U.S.

The Kayes' top priority is to find a buyer who will keep the collection together. "My wife and I, particularly her, have put such love, such passion--plus money--into it, it would be a crime not to see that it continue to be displayed in its entirety," said Barry Kaye, 72.

For whoever purchases the collection, displaying it will require substantial space. Carole Kaye says it's the largest contemporary miniature collection in the world. Currently, the permanent collection, which contains more than 200 separate exhibits, is jammed into two floors and 14,000 square feet. Barry Kaye said that, ideally, 20,000 square feet are needed for proper display. The collection features miniature replicas of some of the world's most ornate architectural landmarks, including Versailles Palace, Hampton Court and the Vatican--as well as mini versions of more modern structures such as the Hollywood Bowl. A small-scale Titanic is created of 75,000 toothpicks.

Most of the museum's pieces are at or below 1/12th scale, and some, including a bouquet of red roses with petals made of fish scales, are so tiny they have to be viewed through a magnifying lens. The museum has one small room devoted to visiting exhibitions.

The museum is unusual because most of the miniatures were commissioned from a worldwide cadre of contemporary artists--rather than simply collected--by Carole Kaye. New creations have been added regularly. In a cheeky response to 1999's blockbuster exhibition "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" across the street at LACMA, Carole Kaye commissioned an artist of miniatures to paint some of the same Van Goghs on a smaller scale, and those paintings remain on display. "My banners were hanging before they were hanging across the street," she joked.

Her interest in the world of miniatures began with building a dollhouse with one of her grandsons. "It was something to do together, and we just got carried away when we saw some of the artistry that was out there," she said. "And then we started commissioning pieces just to show some people what the world is like, because so many people never have the opportunity of traveling--we called it 'the world in the palm of your hand.' "

"Most miniature museums started as antique dollhouse museums, with antique dolls, toys and miniatures," she added. "I always felt that the antique things were really meant to be toys for the wealthy; they were out of scale and out of proportion. But the way artists working today do it, it's just like a work of art. It's absolutely breathtaking."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky expressed disappointment that the county could not reach an agreement with the Kayes. "We were interested in it, but from [Barry Kaye's] point of view, there were some issues of some complexity that needed to be resolved, and that just never transpired. I wanted it to remain in the city, to remain part of our legacy, but it's just one of those things."

Annelle Ferguson, president of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans, called the closing "sad for the industry."

"Carole Kaye was a big supporter of our business--she bought a lot, and she made a lot of artisans very happy with her purchases," Ferguson said with a laugh. "We have miniature shows all over the country, big craft shows, but there are a lot of artisans who don't do those shows, who only do commissioned work. She sold a lot of that work through her gift shop--this was an opportunity for those artists to show and sell their work."

The museum began in 1992, housed in the back of Barry Kaye's Century City offices, but quickly outgrew the available space. The Kayes moved the items to their current location two years later.

Like the museum, Barry Kaye Associates remains a family business. Barry and Carole's son Alan continues to run the company's L.A. office; daughter Fern is in New York; and another son, Howard, is based in Boca Raton.

"We're so sad the museum is closing," said Alan Kaye. "In the museum, some of the houses have our names on them--you'll see my name, or my daughter's name, or one of the other grandkids. It's been ours.

"When the museum was still in the back of our offices, we'd do our insurance and estate planning work, and afterward we'd always say: 'Let me show you my mother's museum.' And people would say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' thinking it's going to be a bunch of dolls.

"But they would always do a double-take--because no matter how you prepare people for it, it's always more than they expected."

* The Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, 5900 Wilshire Blvd. Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $7.50, seniors $6.50, students $5, children $3. (323)937-6464. Closed Dec. 25. Through Dec. 31.

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