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The Search for Merch: Mementos for Museum Nerds

April 1, 2021
Cleveland Museum of Art merchandise set out in the store.

Have you ever wondered how we select products for the museum store? This is a unique retail space is unlike any other shop or boutique. We put a lot of thought and care into making sure that the products we sell are related to and inspired by the art in the galleries. Think about how exhibitions are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Similarly, the museum store has a limited window of time to develop collections of products to complement our exhibitions. You can find pieces of art to take home that are created by local and international artisans, all in one place.

Let’s take a look at an example of selecting merchandise for the exhibition, Stories from Storage, on view through May 16. We talked to Bianca Pitts, the CMA’s museum store manager, to gather some insight into this process.

Stories from Storage is a unique exhibition consisting of 20 stories about works of art from the museum’s vaults. This show features something for everyone, of all ages and walks of life. View African or Asian artworks only a short distance apart, travel through more than 3,000 years of history, and take in a variety of media ranging from textiles to marble.

When it came to finding products related to this exhibition, Bianca relied on her appreciation for the arts and while prioritizing the customer experience. She works to source and select products that will allow visitors to capture their experience at the CMA in the form of a tangible memento. But there’s more to it than that, which led us to digging deeper and asking more questions.

How did you pick merchandise to feature in the store for Stories from Storage?

Stories from Storage highlights artwork that is typically not seen and is kept in the vaults. It offered a unique opportunity to go through the collection to identify any pieces that we could develop product from. This show is a bit different in that there are twenty stories from across the curatorial departments to consider. Knowing this, we sent out a questionnaire to each curator to ask what artworks they would like to see transformed into merchandise. This process occured before we purchased anything; it helped us concentrate on pieces that are important to our curators and to the show itself.

Next, we focused on culture and travel. We wanted to connect visitors to the various countries and stories in the exhibition. For example, we chose hand embroidered pieces from Paris, like the mask I wore on Kickin’ It with Kenny, and beautifully hand crafted clutches from Africa.

Fox 8’s Kenny Crumpton, who hosts a morning news segment called Kickin’ it with Kenny, visited the CMA to check out a few of the seldomly-seen works of art and learned the fascinating stories behind them. He also stopped by the store to talk with Bianca about Stories from Storage items in the museum store.

Watch: Kenny checks out rare artifacts in new display at Cleveland Museum of Art

What inspires you when selecting products?

My inspiration for selecting producst is always to build a connection with our visitors. We hope to find a way for them to remember their time at the CMA, whether that be in the permanent collection or in an exhibition.

Speaking of building a connection, how do you find artists for products?

Offering unique merchandise is important for our stores. We work with many local artisans to achieve this goal. Before COVID, I would attend local art fairs to look for items to incorporate into our displays. Artist have also sent photos of their pieces and inquired about displaying their work in the store.

When selecting an artist to feature, we focus on how their work relates to the CMA collection or an exhibition. We want to ensure that we are showcasing products that are truly one of a kind and of great quality.

How do you create a one-of-a-kind shopping experience for visitors?

We have worked with a variety of vendors for several years. I contact them to see if they have any products we’d like to feature or if they have a suggestion for other artisans. We like to deal directly with the artisans or fair trade companies. For Stories from Storage, we worked with ButterPear for our African merchandise. ButterPear is right here in Cleveland, Ohio. They work with young refugee entrepreneurs in Cleveland and source from several African countries for handmade items. In addition to their masks and triangle clutch bags, we also carry their African shea butter products. You’ll have everything you need to stay safe, look fashionable, and know that you’re supporting a mission-driven local business.

When searching for new vendors and products, I attend museum store conferences in various cities. Over the past year, due to COVID, I have relied on previously established relationships with vendors to create products from our collection and to find product selections that are best sellers among museums to create a unique shopping experience.

Who are some other local artisans featured in the CMA store?

We feature hand-painted glasswork by Mindy Sand, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio. She is known for her colorful and fun designs on pieces suited for the modern home, bar, or table.

Gai Russo is another local artisan, hailing from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Her handmade jewelry incorporates sustainable and ethical materials, while her designs are often inspired by nature.

What is the most popular item in the store?

In general, our face masks have been very popular. The best seller for the Stories from Storage collection has been the various face masks made by ButterPear (in store only). You’ll notice that these masks have very vibrant colors, while others are embroidered. Any pattern or color you pick, the designs on these masks are breathtaking.

 

If you haven’t experienced Stories from Storage yet, reserve your ticket for this must-see exhibition.

But wait…there’s more! Starting Wednesday, April 7, and on the following Wednesdays, get FREE tickets to Stories from Storage. Afterwards, don’t forget to stop by the museum store to bring a piece of it home with you or shop the collection online. Remember that we offer curbside pickup and free shipping on orders over $75.

Watch the video below for a glimpse at this spellbinding show and then reserve your tickets! #WithlovefromCMA

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