Galleries See Museum Gift Shops as Allies in Art World. (Special Report)

By Wong, Jennifer | Art Business News, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Galleries See Museum Gift Shops as Allies in Art World. (Special Report)


Wong, Jennifer, Art Business News


Gallery owners and publishers are becoming aware of the rising retail presence of many U.S. museums. For instance, the Zenith Gallery in Washington, D.C., is a short walk from the National Gallery, the Smithsonian Institute and the Hirschorn Museum. Suzanne Alessi, gallery manager, sees many people walk into her gallery with their museum gift shop bags in tow. "People make us their next stop," said Alessi, who believes that people want to see more after their visit to a museum.

"They are reminded of the value of art in our culture," said Alessi. "Purchasing a piece of art helps them take part in that cultural experience." Being in close proximity to these museums is a big help to the Zenith Gallery, which receives a lot of foot traffic from tourists.

The Changing Face of Museum Gift Shops

While Alessi's gallery, which has been in business for more than 23 years, doesn't suffer competition from the museum shops, many galleries are aware that museums are stepping up their retail presence with consumers. They are unabashedly marketing their increasingly sophisticated array of gifts, prints and, in some cases, original, hand-made crafts and jewelry.

There has been a significant shift in the mindset of museums and their gift shops due in part to cuts in government funding that previously fueled acquisitions and shows. Having to make up for the lost financial backing, they've become increasingly savvy in their marketing and merchandising techniques. A 1999 survey of 1,800 museums by the American Association of Museums, revealed that revenue from gift shops and publications accounted on average for 25.5 percent of a museum's earned income.

In addition to the shopping experience offered on-site at museums and other locales, consumers regularly receive stacks of catalogs in the mail from such venerable institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In addition to mail-order catalogs, many museums enjoy brisk sales from their Internet sites, with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's sales up 40 percent during the last half of last year.

The Met has a national retail empire that currently numbers 15 stores peppered across the country, in addition to several franchises abroad, which reported gross sales of $76 million in 2000. However, the successful retail operations of the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been no accident.

Soon after it opened its doors in 1870, the trustees had already foreseen the role of merchandising. According to Sally Pearson, vice president and general manager for merchandise and retail at the Met, the trustees stated in their second-annual report that the sale of publications and reproductions was an important means of widening public interest and enjoyment of art. In addition, retail offered the possibility of revenues to help meet the museum's operating needs. "This continues to be our mission as merchants in the present day," said Pearson.

Indeed, increasing the public's interest and enjoyment of the arts is precisely why gallery owners are supportive of the increasing presence of museum shops in malls, airports, on the Internet and directly in consumers' homes via catalogs. "Museum shops are a complement to galleries because they create a heightened awareness of art and the acquisition of all things art related," said Bob Chase, president of the Chase Group in Chicago.

Museums and their shops reach a broad audience of people, many of whom may never have set foot in their hometown art galleries. Having a great experience at a museum and making a souvenir purchase at the museum shop can begin to break down the intimidation factor that prevents people from visiting an art gallery. "The more consumers being exposed to art, whether it's tied in with a scarf, tie, t-shirt or poster, benefits everybody in the art industry," said Aimee Talan, director of marketing at the Winn Devon Art Group in Seattle. …

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