More Registers Ring in Museum Shops

As art merchandising becomes widespread, concerns arise about creating a network of upscale malls

Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism have long been staples of art history. Now a new "ism," capitalism, is changing the bottom line of museum budgets from red ink to black. Faced with declining government and corporate support, "Museums are definitely depending more and more on retail sales for revenue," according to Lorelei Rowars, merchandise manager at the Newark (N.J.) Museum.

"We have been emphasizing revenue and profit growth," says Joseph Bianco, executive vice president of the financially beleaguered Detroit Institute of Arts. Having expanded from one on-site gift shop to two additional shops in suburban malls, the museum saw its annual retail sales grow from around $350,000 10 years ago to nearly $3 million today. The profit generated to support the museum, Mr. Bianco says, "is crucial to our survival, amen!"

In the mid-1980s, the Museum Store Association, a nonprofit trade group, counted around 700 institutional members. Today, the number has grown to 1,800. Executive director Beverly Barsook notes, "People used to talk about whether their museums would have a gift shop. Now the question is only where to put it. Directors recognize retail sales are a significant part of the earned income of an institution."

Only within the past 20 years, as city, state, and federal support for art museums plummeted, Ms. Barsook adds, has the need to make big bucks been crucial. With the pressure on, store sales are up 10 percent this year at Delaware's Winterthur Museum and up 25 percent at the Newark Museum.

At the same time that landscapes are being turned into moneyscapes, some express concern that the educational mission of nonprofit museums may be corrupted by pursuit of dollars.

Not Thomas P.F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1966 to 1977. Mr. Hoving pioneered entrepreneurial showmanship with the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" tour in 1977. He notes, "Within the heart of every museum director beats a warning voice, saying, 'Are we ruining it? Are we selling out?' Which is a shame, because museum directors have an obligation to keep their institutions running. Retail sales are the most beautiful way to collect decent revenue. It's the only place you can really score and roar."

J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of Washington's National Gallery, has reservations about the trend. "I get nervous about putting the collection in a subordinate role to merchandising or turning the art museum into a branch of the local shopping mall."

He disapproves of the common practice of locating sales facilities at the exit to a show, to maximize souvenir sales. "In an exhibition," Brown explains, "a certain mood and aesthetic experience are created." Clanging cash registers or, as Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes says, emerging from a sublime show of Van Gogh paintings to see an ashtray shaped like Van Gogh's ear, "does put a tawdry dimension on the experience," Brown continues.

Painting by the numbers is likely to accelerate, however, driven by economic necessity and a growing market. The Metropolitan Museum, with 14 satellite shops in the United States and 20 franchises abroad, pulled in nearly $83 million in gross sales in 1996. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with its two stores, reaped more than $21 million in total retail sales last year.

Sales volume is exhibition driven, dependent on the popularity of a particular show. For its hit Vermeer show, the National Gallery sold 62,376 catalogs. (Typically sales of 5,000 to 10,000 copies are considered successful.)

At MoMA, the most successful exhibition-related product sales were generated by its 1993 Matisse retrospective ($7.5 million out of total annual shop sales of $25 million). The Philadelphia Museum of Art had both blockbuster attendance and sales at its critically acclaimed Czanne retrospective last year. Museum sales zoomed up 169 percent to $7.2 million. Among items that flew out of the gift shop were 8,750 baseballs, emblazoned with Czanne's signature in eye-popping orange or blue letters.

Baseballs? One doesn't think of Czanne lovers as, er, sportif, but, insisted Sandra Horrocks, vice president for marketing and public relations, each ball rested on a stand and was "more of an objet than an athletic object. For her, the basis of museum shops' appeal is that items are "different, unlike products in malls, where each is a carbon copy of products sold at rubber-stamp stores."

Philadelphia, and other venerable institutions like the Met and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, have even hawked their wares on television. QVC, the home-shopping channel that boasts 60 million viewers, hosted a series of museum tours in 1996. Hostess Judy Crowell sold items like "Czanne-inspired" still-life tote bags (1,200 sold at $28 each). Sitting in front of his great-grandfather's magnificent "Bathers" canvas, Philippe Paul Czanne talked up the virtues of his forebear's art to sell items like "Bathers" beach towels.

Besides raising revenue, sales of art-related merchandise enhance the profile of a museum and attract new audiences. According to John Curran, vice president for merchandising at the Metropolitan Museum, "Satellite shops are a good source of outreach for the museum."

Another benefit is that items can be learning tools. For children especially, toys, books, and creative kits based on artworks "expand their taste and horizons," says Deborah Ziska, National Gallery information officer.

The new Miami Museum of Contemporary Art stages mini-shows of crafts. The store installation of Latin American crafts accompanying a "Mexican Modernism" exhibit was designed as a total environment, with piatas, sombreros, and a Day of the Dead skeleton. The crafts "sold out almost immediately," says director Bonnie Clearwater.

As for the Met, which sells an array of reproductions, placing quality objects in homes can have a beneficial effect. As Bradford Kelleher, Met vice president of merchandising and publishing for 40 years and now a consultant, says, "If an object gets out into circulation, gives pleasure, builds interest in the fine arts, and creates the beginning of art appreciation, then we've done our job."

Mr. Kelleher warns, however, that curatorial control should be preserved to avoid kitsch products.

Some museums are hiring strong retailers. MoMA recently named James Gundell, senior vice president and merchandise manager at Bloomingdale's, its new director of retail operations. With plans for expansion, MoMA charged Mr. Gundell with "setting the retail vision and driving business growth," according to museum director Glenn D. Lowry.

Known for fine contemporary design, the gift shop sells books, reproductions, and the occasional Elvis-in-a-gold-suit note card. Gundell acknowledges the need to be consumer driven, saying, "There is a market for low-end things like Mona Lisa T-shirts. Some things [in the shops] will represent what the consumer wants, but there will also be room for things that elevate, educate, and energize the sophisticated consumer."

According to Hoving, "Museums are supposed to be citadels of truth and quality," which would seem to obviate the possibility of becoming an Art-Mart for the masses. Yet, occasionally, a lighter touch should be allowed. During the national tour of the King Tut show, the New Orleans Museum of Art sold a shiny, gold-colored sleeping bag, which children zipped up to their chins to play "boy Pharaoh in his sarcophagus." Hoving recalls, "I ground my teeth in envy that I didn't think of it."

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