You can take it with you: In 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art began offering reproductions of prime pieces of its sculpture, such as “The Three Graces” (right)—all the better to remind visitors of the classical masterpieces in its collection, such as the Temple of Dendur (left).
THE SCENE: an artisanal jewelry trunk show. It’s cocktail hour, and the setting sun sets sparkling the stone floor and various glass objets from around the world, displayed on curving shelves. The crowd—well-dressed women, smartly tailored men—examines the pieces handcrafted from natural wood, bone and horn, while sipping wine and nibbling Terra chips, and chatting with designer Catherine De Groote. Where is this swank site: a new designer boutique? A department store’s special soiree? No, it’s The Store at MAD, in the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, 212.299.7700). Since its establishment in 2008, the shop has set out to become “a premier destination for well-designed crafts and objects,” says Vice President of Retail and Brand Development Franci Sagar.
It’s not alone. In the last few years, New York City museums have stepped up their retailing game, becoming eager players in a town where shopping is a beloved sport. Their emporia have morphed from a few dusty shelves of prints and postcards to stand-alone destinations—many, like The Store at MAD, even keep hours outside their parent museum’s—with inventory that’s evolved from souvenir-oriented to sophisticated. The trend reflects the need to “become more relevant to consumers’ lives,” notes Metropolitan Museum of Art General Merchandise Manager David Wargo. “In today’s digital age, people don’t need a postcard to take home a memory. If they buy something, they want to use it—have it be a part of their routine.”
The Met should know: Between its main store in the museum (1000 Fifth Ave., 212.396.5175) and branches in Rockefeller Center, the Cloisters and New York/New Jersey area airports, it carries over 8,500 types of merchandise, making it one of the biggest museum retailers in town—not to mention one of the oldest: “We’ve been doing reproductions almost ever since we opened our doors in 1870,” Wargo says. While the museum often turns to outside talent for exhibit tie-ins—for PUNK: Chaos to Couture (thru Aug. 14), its shop offers Tom Binns razor-blade and safety-pin jewelry, T-shirts by Dolce & Gabbana and even hair dyes from Manic Panic—the majority of its items are unique, developed internally by the museum’s own design division. By definition, products have to relate to its permanent collection—either as an outright duplication (for example, a copy of the clock that hung in designer Louis Comfort Tiffany’s home) or an adaptation—taking a pattern or image and executing it in a different medium, as, say, a shawl or tie that uses one of Arts & Crafts designer William Morris’ wallpaper prints. Textiles and clothing are the museum’s most popular items, Wargo says: People relate to the museum via “something they wear, touch, look at every day.” Culture Shop -- August 2013 Special Feature
While The Met revels in repros, the Museum of Modern Art—another big player on the store scene, with its flagship boutique on-site (11 W. 53rd St., 212.708.9700), as well as freestanding Design Stores across the street and in SoHo—takes an opposite approach. Only about a quarter of its stock is directly connected to exhibits or the permanent collection, says Emmanuel Plat, director of merchandising for MoMA retail. “What makes us different: We’re really a design store”—which means, essentially, carrying cool stuff. Plat and his team travel the world, perpetually looking for an assortment of furniture, furnishings and personal items—some serious, some quirky—that are both practical and visually pleasing, innovative yet enduring icons of style, such as the sticklike Satellite Bowls or the Sky Umbrella, with its cheery blue-and-white interior. Along with being vetted by curators, the items reflect MoMA in a larger sense. “The museum’s mission has always been to educate the public about modern art and design,” Plat notes, and, through these objects, “that’s our mission, too.” Culture Shop -- August 2013 Special.
If The Met and MoMA’s stores are the philharmonics of museum retailing, that of the Neue Galerie (1084 Fifth Ave., 212.628.6200) is “a chamber orchestra,” jokes Director Renée Price. The inventory is small but choice—extremely choice, with many items (some of which are made to order) running in the three and four figures. Like The Met, the Neue Galerie embraces reproductions, of the best kind: imitations of the tableware, jewelry, textiles and housewares created by the early-20th-century Austrian and German designers to which the museum is devoted, such as Rundes Modell cutlery, recreated by Alessi and looking as fresh today as it did when Josef Hoffmann designed it in 1906-07, or a copy of a Koloman Moser brooch, for the current Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907 show (thru Sept. 2). The store also offers limited-edition collaborations with modern designers—i.e., a tapestry tote by MZ Wallace—all in the spirit of the Secessionist, Wiener Werkstätte and Bauhaus artists who felt every aspect of life should be part of an aesthetic environment. Speaking of which: The store displays its objets in the former powder room and its books in, appropriately, the library of a 1914 Beaux Arts mansion—the Neue Galerie’s headquarters.
Another historic home provides much of the charm of The Morgan Shop (The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., 212.590.0390), which occupies two of the original rooms of the famed financier’s family manse—a music room, adorned with gilt moldings, marble fireplaces and two mirrors facing each other, and an adjoining chamber adorned with bay windows. Through them, the store makes a pretty picture on its residential side street—which might explain why “we get a lot of people just coming in for the shop,” claims Director of Merchandising Services Sean Hayes. Everything relates to the museum’s collection, and since Pierpont Morgan collected everything from geodes to Gutenberg Bibles, this makes for a pretty eclectic mix of merch. The homey array ranges from definitive monographs, like Monika Grzymala: 11 Works 2000–2011 (commemorating the Berlin artist’s current on-site installation, thru Nov. 3) to Shakespearean foliolike leather notebooks; stationery and notecards, with facsimiles of first-edition art the museum owns, are big, as is anything with the impressively paneled library’s image on it. “We do as much unique merchandise as possible, for people to take a part of the Morgan with them,” Hayes explains.
Giving people a chance to take a bit of the institution with them is also the aim of the Guggenheim Museum Store (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., 800.329.6109). Located at the base of the museum’s smaller rotunda (look up to see its spiral), it greets visitors with dozens of colorful mobiles, evocative of the designs of Alexander Calder. The inventory abounds in contemporary art and handmade goods—not necessarily exclusive, but that “connect with the Guggenheim’s clean, fresh, cutting-edge identity,” says Managing Director for Business Development Karen Meyerhoff. Still, the core products are logo-based, or evocative of the museum’s most famous possession: its own building. There are models of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed edifice, white porcelain mugs (and soon, more tableware) that evoke the famed rotunda and even a collection of paints in “gallery colors.”
While most museum stores carry a mix of merchandise, their collections tend to evoke their specialties. The American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West, at W. 79th St., 212.769.5100) even divides its retail outlets by branches of science (the Cosmic Shop, the DinoStore). Its bazaarlike trilevel flagship, off the main lobby, carries everything from sake sets to chemistry sets. Yet, with its bronze pteranodon skeleton mobiles flying over the stairway with a vertebrae railing, it seems especially dedicated to delighting children, with ingenious items they’ll find either educational (translucent Magna-Tiles building blocks), intellectual (a book of Theodore Roosevelt Quotes & Wisdom) or fun (packets of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream). Most of the goods in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian store, housed in the handsome former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (1 Bowling Green, 212.514.3767), are made by Native Americans from North and Latin America; the marvel is their range—from traditional Navajo talking sticks to modern Pueblo horsehair pottery, from Kuna wall hangings to Northeastern Woodland tribe deerskin bracelets. In the Museum of the City of New York shop (1220 Fifth Ave., 212.534.1672), “everything has a New York theme to it—past, present and future, which is what the museum celebrates,” says Director of Merchandising & Visitor Services Peter Capriotti. That includes magnets with images drawn from the 100,000-plus vintage photos in the collection, a mesh disco bag inspired by the recent Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced exhibit or a handblown ribbon vase by NYC artist Lorin Silverman. Capriotti buys local whenever he can, down to P&H sodas (Brooklyn) and Josephine’s Feast! jams (Long Island and upstate).
Retail outlets can also help a museum extend its grasp. Building constraints limit the size of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s (945 Madison Ave., 212.570.3614) physical store to a lobby corner that, despite a varied inventory, appears dominated by books, exhibit catalogs and prints. But its online store (shopwhitney.org) gives spacious play to all its merchandise: Jean-Michel Basquiat porcelain plates, Keith Haring scented candles, Tauba Auerbach playing cards and other ingenious pieces designed by, or in homage to, U.S. artists. And while every museum shop represents its parent’s mission, the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop (145 Sixth Ave., 212.759.0606) represents its parent—literally. Since Dahesh itself is currently an institution-without-walls, the year-old boutique’s sunny, exposed-brick-walled space is its primary public presence. Director of Communications & Marketing Paula Webster says the items (“some authentic, some fun”)—such as pillows adorned with tiny caftans; glittery, gauzy Egyptian scarves; and Turkish towels—“riff off the works in the collection” of 19th- and 20th-century academic art, with an emphasis on Orientalist genres.
Museum emporia are a varied lot, their approaches varying as much as their inventory. But they all share a common mission: to support their parent institution, both financially and figuratively. As the Museum of Arts and Design’s Franci Sagar observes: “When people emerge inspired from an exhibit, they can find something in the store that continues the experience”—and says, in effect, “come back soon.”
The Rose Center for Earth and Space (left) is one of the most popular sections of the American Museum of Natural History; and one of the most popular items sold by its gadget-laden, science-inspired store is a telescope, such as this refracting model by Meade (right), which has given many budding astronomers their start.
The Neue Galerie specializes in turn-of-the-20th-century German and Austrian artists, as in its Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907 show (left); its shop features high-end reproductions of their works, such as black-and-white crystalware by Josef Hoffmann, originally designed in 1912 (right).