Anyone who has set foot in a major gallery’s gift shop of late will know that it’s become something of a main attraction. Indeed, a glance at today’s gift shops provides a sweeping art history: from Giotto-themed pencils, to Pollock bath mats, Van Gogh eyewear, and Banksy face masks.
For many visitors, the shop is the bridge between the art on the wall, so often shielded by glass and rope barriers, and everyday life. Thanks to the gift shop, art can be pocketed, displayed in one’s home, and sometimes even worn.
With so many options it’s no surprise that gift shops are as carefully curated as the exhibitions themselves. Nothing ends up on the shelf by accident, each object vetted by a team of art merchandise professionals.
“One of the most controversial decisions we make is which works to reproduce as postcards” says Tate merchandising director Rosey Blackmore. “We consult widely on this, canvassing our colleagues and taking advice from the show’s curator”. Despite this attention to detail, they can’t satisfy everyone. Inevitably, “there are always images that we don’t select that are requested”.
Many product ranges are born of the gallery’s collaboration with artists and their estates. Just as in an exhibition, the overall coherence or “narrative” of the merchandise collection is of great importance.
“We’ll talk to the artist and decide what work resonates in the terms of the merchandise” says Blackmore. “For instance, instead of replicating an existing artwork, the Andy Warhol estate asked us to “channel Andy”; to come up with something new and unique”.
Lately the team has been working with artist Lubaina Himid, ahead of her solo show in November. Textile and haberdashery are leitmotifs in her paintings, and “Lubaina has created a piece of textile art for us to reproduce and sell, which pulls all the elements in her work together”.
All profits from the Tate gift shops, after the artist’s cut, are directed back into the running of the gallery.
Boundaries between the shop and the exhibit can sometimes blur. At the Royal Academy, the gift shop’s wares trickle throughout the building, with books and catalogues available to purchase from the canteen.
Given the RA was established in the 18th century as a place where art could be bought and sold, this broad incorporation of the gift shop seems a natural fit.
There are four gift shops within the Victoria & Albert Museum, selling both standalone merchandise and exhibition tie-ins. For its current Alice in Wonderland show, Alice: Curious and Curiouser, the shop’s ceiling is decorated with giant playing cards, while prints from its William Morris collection adorn everything from aprons to silk scarves.
Gift shops weren’t always a destination. In the not-so-distant past they largely consisted of a few bland posters, and a whirligig of postcards. Now the shops at established institutions overflow with art memorabilia, from Hokusai bedspreads, to Klimt cushions, and Dadaist vases, enabling their visitors to leave with a slice of art for themselves.
“Over the lockdowns we noticed an upswing in poster sales” says V&A senior buyer Margaux Soland. “People wanted to brighten their homes with art”.
The V&A merchandise team strives to acquire objects “relevant to where we are, and who we are” because, as Soland explains, “we want it to feel like a continuation of the visitor experience”, as well as a “complement to our craft and design legacy”. The result is a range of on-trend, inspiring, but also somewhat aspirational, products.
While gift shops provide a huge stream of revenue for galleries, it’s not all about the Monet. Beyond commercial opportunity, gift shops offer an important reflection of how the general public values art. Whether it graces jewellery or tote bags, the artworks chosen to be replicated are testament to their impact on the world, and vice-versa. It also provides artists with a dynamic publicity opportunity, which explains why artist Jess de Wahls was so indignant this summer after the (now reversed) removal of her embroideries from the RA gift shop.
Climate concerns have prompted changes within gift shop stock, particularly when it comes to materials. The Tate now operates a t-shirt recycling system – bring an old tee, receive a discount on a new one – and the majority of its books and postcards are printed on environmentally friendly paper.
While the gift shop can be great indicator of how we value art, it can equally show how our taste for art imitates the gift shop. Had Munch’s The Scream not been reproduced in the form of a poster available for purchase, it’s likely some of the children at my primary school might never have known of its existence. The posters, cards, and assorted gimmicks found in gift shops are representative of important symbols in current popular culture, just as Catholic icons were made en masse to remind the population of their faith and the presence of Christ.
But can extreme reproduction devalue an artwork? Speaking in an interview, the artist Keith Haring, whose groundbreaking 1986 Pop Shop – which sold ordinary items covered by his doodles – is regarded as the antecedent of the gift shop as it is today, said “once the artwork becomes a ‘product’ or a ‘commodity’ the compromising position is basically the same”. The art, in other words, is no longer pure.
That might well be the case for some artworks – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, say, or the ubiquitous Mona Lisa – but let’s not overlook the benefits. Gift shops “provide the opportunity for the democratising of art”, says Blackmore. “Most people can’t have the original art, but they can have a tote bag, or a postcard”.