Museum bookshops, once regarded as an afterthought in America's art institutions, have become integral to the operation of today's museum. This change in relationship between stores and their parent institutions is in fact one of the biggest trends in art museum retail today, according to several insiders. As Gwen
Benner, senior director of business enterprises at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), puts it, "There is more respect for the impact of the store on the museum experience, even from the curatorial arm of the museum, and a heightened awareness of the contribution to the bottom line of museum operations."
While that contribution may not seem like a lot—in a 2003 survey of the American Association of Museums, it was, on average, 2% of net operating revenue—every dollar counts after 9/11, which caused income at many institutions to drop. The rise of the stock market has helped turn the situation around, although in a survey released last year by the Association of Art Museum Directors, just over half of all museums reported flat or a decline in revenue. At the same time, museums continue their renovation plans. The same survey found that 84 museums were moving forward with building projects, five placed their plans on hold and another three revived previously suspended expansion plans.
So do the twin needs for museum stores to contribute to the museum experience and be self-supporting lead to more book sales for publishers? For D.A.P. (Distributed Art Publishers) president Sharon Gallagher, it has little net effect. "Obviously, our sales grow," she told PW, "but we certainly see that our museum business stays at a constant percentage of our entire business." On the other hand, Abrams president and CEO Michael Jacobs says it means a broadening out of what is considered an art book to include lower-priced titles based on the popular Sanrio icon: "We have museums that buy Hello Kitty[books and calendars]. Museum customers are interested in both popular culture and design."
Meanwhile, at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., which reopened in January with an additional 900 sq. ft. of selling space, buyer Greg Hicks tries to balance the Getty's educational mission with books that are priced to sell. "I try to find meritorious books that relate to the collections and gardens and architecture here," he says. "But at the same time our store does want to return a healthy profit. Price is a factor. That's why we do so well with remainders and Taschen books, which sell at about half or two-thirds of the price of other books." To improve the store's bottom line, the Getty, which does not charge admission, decided to devote more space to jewelry and other high-margin items without cutting back on its 3,500-title base.
"My job is to support the museum financially," says Sean Halpert, book buyer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "But it's also to offer an experience in our store. I think that people are starved to find bookstores with personality. And a good, inclusive art, photography, design and architecture selection is hard to come by." Halpert boosts the store's margins by stocking bargain books and calendars and by utilizing publisher discount specials. Book sales, Halpert estimates, account for roughly 40% of the MFA's store sales, or $3 million a year. However, a blockbuster show, like one for Monet a few years back, can skew those numbers upward. The museum sold 25,000 catalogues in three months.
Exhibition catalogues and the museum's own publications are often its retail operation's bestsellers. At the Getty, half of all the center's sales come from Getty Publications, including fun but educational children's books like John Harris and Calef Brown's Pop-Up Aesop. That does not mean that museum stores don't branch out beyond collection-related titles. At the Boston MFA, which has no nearby independent stores, Halpert stocks cookbooks, poetry, novels and lots of kids books for the increasing number of young families that visit the museum.
For Milwaukee's Benner, exhibit-related titles have their own challenges. "We're reinventing ourselves on an average of every three months. We're not only buying, but we're breaking down one theme store and putting in another," she says. Since MAM is the first U.S. building designed by Santiago Calatrava—who also designed the store—Benner does well with just about every book available on the Spanish architect, as well as the same types of impulse buys favored by general bookstores, like Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit (Princeton), Anne Taintor's I'm Becoming My Mother (Chronicle) and Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman's Yiddish with Dick and Jane (Little, Brown). In addition, children's books, especially those by local Wisconsin author and illustrator Lois Ehlert, are strong sellers. Although children's are only 7% of total book sales, when exhibit catalogues are factored out, that figure rises to 20%.
Even though museum stores are very much destination points, they face many of the same challenges as other brick-and-mortar bookstores, including Internet competition. "What I see sometimes is that, say, I have a beautiful $90 book on the shelf, [and] people will go home and order it online for the discount," says Mark Millmore, director of retail operations at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, who is more concerned about competition from Amazon than a nearby Borders.
Although MCA has not been immune from flat bookstore sales, like other independents, MCA's overall retail was up by 25% last year. To improve books, Millmore, who recently took over the buying, plans to increase inventory, especially in children's, which he says is only about 10% of what it could be. He also plans to add new categories, like graphic novels and animation. But even more of a priority for him than simply adjusting the mix of books is changing the way books are displayed. "When I think of my store," says Millmore, "I think of contemporary lifestyle and art. It's not about what you have, but how you put it together. It's the entire message."
While MCA is looking to carry more books, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City has chosen a different approach. The museum got kudos for its redesign, when it opened in November 2004, but it has also become the poster child for book cutbacks at museums. Undeservedly so, objects chief operating officer James Gara. "When MoMA was planning the new building, our priorities were to include as much space as possible for galleries and public areas, resulting in less square footage for retail and restaurants. Due to expanded sales online, the museum anticipates retail to contribute the same percentage to the overall budget."
At the same time, Gara is particularly concerned about promoting the museum's educational mission through its retail operation. To encourage visitors to learn about art. MoMA installed a 1,550 sq. ft. bookstore/reading room, in addition to the large MoMA Design and Books Store on the first floor and a small exhibit store.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has the highest dollar sales per visitor of any major U.S. museum store, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors, has similar plans. "We really need to work our efforts to grow our online sales," says book buyer Annie Conde, adding that an online survey at www.sfmoma.org is seeking ways to improve the store's customer outreach.
Even the country's largest museum gift store operation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has 20 stores in the U.S. and 11 abroad, as well as a highly developed online store at www.MetMuseum.org/store, faces stiff online and retail competition. "We would be naïve if we didn't look at what other retailers or catalogue companies were selling," says Valerie Troyanksy, general manager of product development. "But we're not a bookstore discounter. We have an amount of money we need to contribute to the museum."