By Barbara Thau
Museums are navigating the intersection of art and commerce with a renewed focus on their retail stores.
These cultural institutions are opening satellite stores, expanding existing units and ramping up e-commerce to tap into consumers’ growing appetite for merchandise with a patina of distinction.
They are also penetrating traditional retail channels with licensed home goods.
Museums are stoking their retail businesses as arts funding has dwindled in recent years. Store proceeds go back to the institution.
“Arts funding has seen better days in this country,” Mark Polizzotti, director of intellectual property and publishing for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, told HFN.
“We’re all facing a crunch: Expenses are up and competition is fierce.”
Museums are competing with an ever-fragmented piece of shoppers’ mind share: from the Web to HBO and the Red Sox game, he said.
Kathy Thornton-Bias, general manager of MoMA Retail, agreed. “Our cultural institutions have been strapped the last several years for a number of reasons: the government is cutting back, donors are cautious because of the economy.” As a result, most cultural institutions are looking for creative ways to generate revenue, she said.
And “retail is being asked to shoulder a larger part of the burden,” Polizzotti said.
The Museum of Modern Art stepped abroad for the first time last year with a store in Tokyo.
Japan’s appreciation of modern art and good design made the market ripe for a MoMA store, Thornton-Bias said. What’s more, the museum has huge brand awareness in the nation.
MoMA is now eyeing other international locations as potential markets for expansion.
“We’re doing a lot of exploratory travel … taking a cautious approach,” Thornton-Bias said.
MoMA’s stores have wider appeal than its museum ilk because they transcend the museum-store aesthetic, she said.
In home, most of MoMA’s mix, the museum considers retailers such as Design Within Reach and Murray Moss competition, but does not consider other museum stores rivals.
“Our brand resonates with shoppers outside of the museum experience,” she said. “From Berlin to Buenos Aires, our buyers travel the world, and attend the key international home shows, such as the Milan Furniture Fair … and in some cases, drive design.”
With its merchandise mix, the retailer aims to provoke thought by offering the unexpected—be it in color or design—that goes beyond pure decoration.
The result is an idiosyncratic assortment such as Destination: Japan, a collection of products with an unexpected twist that beckons a second take.
The exclusive line from emerging and established Japanese designers reflects a quirky interpretation of things used everyday, such as a soy sauce container shaped like a duckbill. The appeal of museum stores has grown as shoppers become increasingly bored with one-size-fits-all product, sources said. That craving has been fed by the plethora of choices online.
“People shop at museum stores for their own individual look,” said Bonnie Mackay, director of merchandising, creative, and marketing for MoMA Design Stores. “We have the flexibility to buy what major department stores can’t.”
Museums are also growing their online retail businesses. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is targeting licensing and e-commerce for growth.
The MFA was one of the first to launch an e-commerce Web site back in 1998. Today, the site boasts more than 3,600 SKUs, and “we’re making a push to increase our presence on the Web—a lot of that [targeting] the international customer,” said Ellen Bragalone, general manager of retail.
It’s also looking to tap its former catalog shoppers from its discontinued mail-order arm.
The museum views its trove of signature images, reproduced on merchandise, as a key point of distinction from its peers. These include Lighthouses and Buildings by Edward Hopper and Boston Common at Twilight by Frederick Childe Hassam.
“We use them everywhere in a few different ways, either a complete image or we may pull out a detail from the image,” Bragalone said. The images can be found on mugs, trivets, tea towels and collectible boxes in the MFA’s home collection, about 20 percent of the mix.
The museum store also refreshes its mix with the limited-edition products that result from its short-term exhibits, such as the Rhythms of Modern Life, a collection of British prints from the 1900s, or one on French Couture Fashion in 2006 that gave birth to a black-and-white collection of home goods.
‘“Our big challenge is how to keep up with trends in the regular world, and how does something in our collection relate to that,” Bragalone said.
Art for Commerce’s Sake
Museum stores grapple with striking the delicate balance of carrying merchandise that sells, but also reflects the museum’s cultural identity.
“It’s a juggling act,” Polizzotti said. “How do you maintain the level of quality and hold your chin up?”
At times, “Curators will show us something that’s very important artistically but people wouldn’t want it in their homes or hanging on their walls,” Bragalone said. “There is a balancing act.”
But the mix must also pass muster with curators.
“Since we have to work with curators on what’s in the collection, I can’t just go out and say, ‘1920s florals are hot this season,’ ” said Jody Malordy, general manager of marketing and publicity for merchandising for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store.
Instead, the Met plumbs its collections for inspiration and builds from there, she said. Eighty-five of the Met’s merchandise is based on its collections.
For example, the museum is developing a product line based on a Chinese interlocking square motif that draws from its Chinese garden.
The Met has one of the most ubiquitous museum retail brands out there, with 20 shops that span mass spaces such as airports and malls and stores abroad. It also operates two catalogs and an e-commerce site.
This summer, the Met named Brad Kauffman vice president for merchandising. He joined the museum from L.L. Bean, where we was senior vice president for strategic planing and new business development. The Met cited Kauffman’s experience in opening and managing new stores, as well as product development, as key to his new role at the Met.
Kauffman was unavailable for comment.
As Kauffman sets the direction he’ll take the business, the museum store will explore growth within its product mix—most of which is developed in house—via new technology.
“We have an internal molding studio for sculpture, which we consider the crown jewel of the merchandising program,” Malordy said. As a result, the products the Met sells are real reproductions, she said.
Growth in home, about 15 percent of the mix, will come from clocks, gifts and decorative accessories.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s presence at department stores, upscale specialty stores and independent furniture stores is burgeoning via home licensing.
The cultural institution, which includes iconic museums such as the Cooper Hewitt and the Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as the National Art Gallery and Air & Space museum in Washington, operates 20 stores.
Home was identified as a major growth category in 2004, Peter Reid, head of product development and licensing, told HFN.
The aesthetic for the Smithsonian brand is upscale, “timeless adaptations inspired by America’s heritage,” he said.
The museum is looking for home licences to generate about one-third of the institution’s business at retail, which is between $75 million and $100 million and growing, he said.
That growth has come from licensees such as Kichler lighting, Castilian home decor and Charles Sadek tabletop.
Some museums are tacking on new shops within their museums.
“Due to the overall expansion plans of the museum, the Museum Shop is positioned for dramatic growth with the opening of four new stores within the next year,” said a representative from the Museum Shop of the Art Institute of Chicago.
An Asian Shop will open in tandem with the reinstallation of Asian art galleries this fall.
It will feature things like silk textiles, hand-painted porcelain and hand-carved objects from China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
“Museums look at retail as a revenue-generating department,” the MFA’s Bragalone said. If they make more money, “they can purchase more art.”