The Fine Art of Merchandising Museums : Trends: Institutes are reaching new audiences and raising money by opening shops to sell items that reflect their permanent collections.


Not many weeks after a women’s specialty shop went out of business in Boston’s up-scale Copley Place mall, its elegant quarters underwent a transformation.

Instead of designer dresses, a Paul Revere silver tea service gleams in the window. Nearby, a marble bust of Augustus sits atop a column, and a bronze statuette of an Egyptian cat graces a shelf. Framed Monet prints line one wall, and jewelry and scarves fill display cases.

Lettering on the front window tells the story: Museum of Fine Arts Holiday Gift Shop. For four months, from September until January, this space is serving as an adjunct to the main gift shop at the museum, a mile and a half away. It represents the latest in a small group of off-site museum shops that are making museum reproductions and art-related products more widely available.


Last month the Detroit Institute of Arts launched its second satellite store, the Somerset Collection, in Troy, Mich., after the success of its year-old shop at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, Mich. In May, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art opened a 2,000-square-foot shop at the Perimeter Mall, 20 miles from the museum. The Art Institute of Chicago operates two satellite shops and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, originator of the concept, runs 13 off-site shops in the United States and six in Japan.

Most items are designed by museum designers, who adapt their creations from important pieces in the collection. “We develop over 80% of products ourselves,” says Curt DiCamillo, assistant manager of the Copley Place shop. “That buffers us from competition, if what we sell is exclusive.”

Some purists argue that the business of a museum is art, not merchandise. But at a time when cultural institutions need financial support, museum shops represent an increasingly important source of revenue.

Beverly Barsook, executive director of the 1,700-member Museum Store Assn. in Denver, explains that the problem of funding the arts “is acute now, because of the general economy and low interest rates. Those institutions fortunate enough to have endowments are not realizing the return on investment they were a few years ago.”

A second reason for the growing popularity of satellite shops involves changing demographics. “We have really seen the complete suburbanization of the American population,” Barsook says.

“These very large institutions can’t just pick up their bags and move to the suburbs,” she said. “And insurance and security are such enormous problems for museums that they can’t send a satellite collection to the suburbs. They have to find some way to reach out to the population that used to support them, and the store is a good way of doing that.”


That outreach can have gratifying results. “Our satellite shops have generated numbers for us,” says Mary Minch, a spokeswoman at the Art Institute. “People who live in the suburbs come into the shop and think, ‘I should go downtown to the museum.’ Just looking at a product, such as a piece of jewelry from Egypt, might inspire them to look at the work of art in the collection.”

The satellite shop in Novi, 30 miles outside Detroit, sold 800 museum memberships in its first year.

“We get people in that area who walk by and do a double take when they see the shop,” says Kathryn Darby, director of retail operations. “They say, ‘Oh, the Detroit Institute of Arts--I haven’t been there in 10 years,’ or 15 years, or whatever.”

To encourage new patrons, the Novi shop and the membership department have also sponsored “shop and shuttle” buses to the museum; the package includes lunch at the museum and a tour of the galleries.

As another way of “giving people a museum experience,” Darby notes that even the architecture of Detroit’s satellite shops borrows design elements from the museum. Both shops feature smaller versions of the columns in front of the museum, along with portions of its popular Diego Rivera murals. A large medallion in the floor at the Somerset store replicates a Pewabic tile compass from the museum.

At Atlanta’s High Museum, spokeswoman Alison Park calls response to the satellite store “tremendous.” Because the shop is an outlet for symphony and theater tickets, she adds, it has made suburban residents more aware of all the arts in the city.


Perhaps the only people not happy about satellite shops are retailers who carry similar merchandise. Barsook hears “a fair amount of grumbling” among retailers who “complain that museums are competing unfairly because they don’t have to pay a corporate income tax.” But, she adds, “from the perspective of the Internal Revenue Service, as far as we know, there is nothing improper about it.”

For now, satellite shops remain the province of large museums. But Barsook notes that smaller museums in areas like Tampa, Fla., and Sacramento are exploring the possibility of jointly operated shops.

If the Boston museum’s trial store at Copley Place is successful, museum officials hope to find a permanent location. “People are so sorry the store will close after the holidays, which of course fills us with great optimism for the future,” DiCamillo says.

Other museum retailers express similar optimism about satellite shops:

“Especially in the suburbs, where most department stores carry trade merchandise, people seem to appreciate products that have been adapted from works of art,” says Minch at the Art Institute. “It’s a nice way to bring a bit of the museum home.”