THE ART traditionally seen in museums nowadays can be all around you. More and more companies are licensing designs from museum collections for everything from clothes fabrics, upholstery, and bedding to ``artist signature'' rugs bearing the image of some noted painting. Even silverware, porcelain, dinner plates, brass fixtures, furniture, and wallpaper may be based on a piece of fine or decorative art.
In return, the museums get a licensing fee of between 5 and 10 percent of net sales for the merchandise they market.
R&D in a museum
Wamsutta, the bedding producer, contracts with the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del., for sheet designs, for example. Wedgewood produces a line of china based on imagery at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Another company, C&A Wallcoverings, has agreements with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England, and the Winterthur Museum (all of which have sizable decorative arts collections), as well as Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts, devoted to colonial America.
Products using museum designs tend to be higher priced.
``On the whole, the museum line is probably the most expensive products we offer,'' said John Quilter, vice president in charge of styling, printed fabrics, and wallcovering at Schumacher Wallcoverings. The company works with Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, South Street Seaport in New York City, as well as Radio City Music Hall (for Art Deco motifs), the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (for modern geometric designs), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
``In general, the price of wallpaper is dependent on the number of colors and screens [in the printing process], whether it's printed in the US or elsewhere, the material it is printed on [cloth or paper], and the volume of printing. With the museum line, there tend to be more colors and screens, a higher quality printing, better material, and a smaller size print run than with other, more mass market wallcoverings,'' Mr. Quilter says.
At Schumacher, the average cost of a ``running yard'' (30 inches by 54 inches) in the museum line is $30 retail, well above the $10 to $12 price of mass market paper. Museums and the art they house represent cachet, and one pays for the association.
Imagery from a museum's collection is not always taken verbatim but becomes the basis or inspiration for a design the company offers. ``We buy actual designs and then interpret them in-house,'' said Stephanie Carter, product manager at Waverly Fabrics in New York City, which has used designs from Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and the Heard Museum of American Indian Art in Phoenix.
``There are degrees to which differences are allowed,'' says Carol Jeanne Gaumer, licensing and product development coordinator at the Winterthur Museum. Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, requires manufacturers to submit prototypes to a product review committee composed of curators there. The Winterthur Museum has its own strict rules of how far companies may go in interpreting designs.
``The height of a chair may be changed,'' Ms. Gaumer says. ``The design on a needlepoint tapestry may be used on a pillow. Sometimes a company believes that a certain design is marketable but wants to change the colors to make it more up to date, but we otherwise try to keep everything as close to the original as possible. It has our name on it after all.''
In turn, many museums also do their own advertising of these pieces as well as stock them in their own gift shops.
Revenue for museums
Museums clearly have a reason to take a large interest in this area of merchandising as it has become a major revenue producer for them. There are currently 35 licensees merchandising $12 million of goods based on designs from the Winterthur Museum, ``and the royalty adds a substantial amount of money to our general operating budget,'' Gaumer says. Colonial Williamsburg earns even more with its 60 licensees.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, has only ``half a dozen licensees,'' notes assistant general merchandising manager Valery Troyansky, ``because we produce our own reproductions.'' Last year, the Met had $50 million in gross sales from its lines of silverware, jewelry, rugs, and other goods based on designs in the museum's collection.