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Museums don’t just want gift shops to make money — they want them to shape our understanding of art

The complicated relationship between art and commerce has a home in the museum gift shop.

The Rodin shop at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

An ear-shaped eraser. A $495 Versace t-shirt. An overwhelming number of printed silk scarves. And of course, the classics: postcards, mugs, and magnets. There are few places where such a mishmash of items makes sense besides in an art museum gift shop.

Contributing up to as much as a quarter of museum revenue, gift shops can be crucial to a museum’s bottom line, but their contributions aren’t only economic. These unique retail spaces help educate visitors, build the museum’s brand, and work to highlight — and sometimes even influence — the aspects of art the institution views as important.

Because basically, stores are like the ultimate cheat sheet — the more you see a piece of art referenced, the more important it probably is. Some visitors even “begin with the shop in order to find out what is important to see in the museum!” says Sharon Macdonald, director of the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage and professor of social anthropology at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Curating your experience

That’s because the same people responsible for putting together exhibitions have a say in what makes it onto store shelves. On a practical branding level, the museum’s curatorial team helps store buyers make sure colors are correct in reproductions and checks out copyrights, which can sometimes be impossible or overly expensive to secure.

But their role extends beyond that says Susan Tudor, vice president of the Museum Store Associations board of directors and the manager of visitor services and store buyer for the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. Tudor says that before developing products, store buyers will meet with curatorial departments to learn “the takeaway and main points of an upcoming show.”

This collaboration is important because museums often consider their stores a space for continued learning and a second chance to stress the main point of an exhibition. Macdonald compares these retail settings to the final exhibit of a show.

Gift shop at the Cameron Art Museum, in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

The perfect example of that is a Rodin store developed by Michael Guajardo, the director of retail operations at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and his team. The recipient of an MSA Recognition Award, the store was transformed into the artist’s studio and painted in the same colors as the exhibition, with several design touches extending the gallery directly into the retail space.

These curatorial collaborations ensure that whether the store is commissioning its own products, working with brands, or buying them from the trade, their pieces connect directly or thematically to the collection — and many museums underscore that relationship by including information in product displays or packing about the artworks that inspired them.

Macdonald says that stores “have the potential to really enhance the [museum] experience by providing the opportunity for visitors to take something tangible away with them.” Through the magic of retail, stores give museums a way to build their brand and develop long term relationships with their visitors.

Things like books can help with further learning, but even items that aren’t obviously educational “can provide a hook for future remembering.” A visit to an art museum can last a few hours, but the memories that come with a pair of novelty slippers can last a lifetime. Museums are hoping that these memories will make you want to come back.

Today “art museums are a great source for original products, as 92 percent sell product that is custom-made to their location,” says Tudor. Beyond the close link these custom products have to their museum’s collection, they also offer better profit margins.

The tricky relationship between art and commerce

With its title, the 2010 Banksy film Exit Through The Gift Shop gave a nod to the complicated relationship between art and commerce. What began in the late 1800s as a small box of reproductions or counter with a limited selection of items has bloomed into a much larger retail phenomenon filled with glossy art books, printed scarves, and ethically sourced jewelry.

Because for all of their curatorial efforts and goals to extend learning experiences, stores are a commercial enterprise. The amount that a store contributes to the bottom line “depends on the institution, but it is sizeable,” says Tudor. Guajardo estimates that big exhibits featuring popular artists and topics can add “anywhere from 25 to 70 percent” to his store’s total year-end sales compared to a “typical year” where sales typically reach just “over $2 million.”

Frida Kahlo dolls in gift shop of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

After operation costs, any profit a museum store makes goes back to its institution, and based on MSA numbers, store contributions typically account for as little as 5 percent all the way up to a full quarter of the museum’s annual revenue. Large donations, grants, and government money often comes with rules about how cash can be spent, points out Guajardo, making shops an important source of unrestricted funds. Though shoppers might not realize it, their purchases are crucial in helping to fund underserved museum initiatives.

Why seeing a painting on keychain lets you know it’s important art

Shoppers might also not be aware just how influential stores can be in shaping what artworks we understand as important. That’s thanks to subconscious magic of the mere-exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon where repeated exposure to something enhances people’s attitudes towards it. Though there are skeptics of the effect’s strength, even they admit that repeatedly seeing an artwork (if it isn’t truly terrible) is one factor that can influence our perception of what counts as Great Art.

Who and what gets to be “important,” and thus featured heavily in museums, has always been contentious. Back in 1989 the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous activist group of feminist artists, created a poster that asked: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Pointing out that less than five percent of the artists in the museum’s modern art galleries were women, while 85 percent of the collection’s nudes were female, the image is a famous example of museums getting called out for the homogeneity of their collections. If a collection lacks diversity, so will its shop.

In October, the Met opened its first exhibition of Native American art in its American wing, accompanied by a shop selling work made by Native American artisans. The shop was conceptualized by the exhibition curator and Marissa Harvey, the general merchandise and sourcing manager for the Met Museum Store. The exhibition is noteworthy because it shows an expanding institutional understanding of whose art counts as American, and the products sold can be seen as part of that effort to boost visibility and perceived value.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Store.
Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

Beyond tracking visitor numbers, an exhibit’s popularity can also be gauged using the commercial success of the accompanying store, and Harvey envisions that because of how customers are reacting to the products, additional pieces will soon be developed for the larger shop, creating more opportunities for visitors to be exposed to and engage with Native American artwork.

Because again, for all of its educational aspirations, a museum store is still a store, which means customer purchasing power reigns supreme. Though there are artworks “curatorial might not think [are] important… our public is telling us that they are,” says Tudor, who like Guajardo and Harvey has a background in the for-profit retail world.

Straying too far from the lessons of traditional retail to focus solely on curatorial vision can mean missing out on sales and opportunities to engage with visitors, which is why museum retailers pay very close attention to the requests that are made, both in terms of specific artworks and types of products.

Giving the customers what they want

In recent years, wearables like scarves and jewelry have become especially popular, giving museums the chance to work their artworks and products into people’s everyday lives. Larger trends, like a growing demand for ethically or locally made goods, also guide the decisions made by museum buyers.

As an example, Harvey points out that until recently, frequent requests from Met Store customers for precious metal jewelry had largely gone unserved. This year the store launched a line that uses fair trade gemstones and ethically sourced metals, and jewelry sales are now trending 25 percent ahead of last year.

Harvey, who was hired near the end of 2017, says that by applying a methodological retail mindset to product selection, after “quite a few years” of not returning a profit back to the museum, this year the Met Store is expected to do so.

With a growing diversity of products like household goods, toys, books, and wearables, museums are now testing new ways to attract customers and expand their influence. Though MSA numbers indicate that art museums still average less than two percent of their sales online, some places like the Met Store are looking to expand into e-commerce in the hopes of engaging with different kinds of shoppers.

In 2017, the MSA even jumped into Black Friday shopping season, debuting Museum Store Sunday which boosted that day’s net sales by 60 percent and museum visitors by 37 percent compared to the previous year. In 2018, over 700 museum stores are expected to participate.

Because beyond all the responsibility that art museum stores have to financially contribute to their institution and help curators further communicate their vision, Tudor says stores are just a great way to keep visitors hanging around a little longer and interacting with the art. That’s because, no matter how intimidating people might find museums or how much (or little) they like the artworks themselves, there’s always one guarantee.

“Everyone loves to shop.”

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