Katy Schwager
CCTP 725

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Have Museums become too commercialized?

“All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.”- Andy Warhol


Museums present themselves to the public as commerce free environments, separate from the art market and galleries. Traditionally they were viewed as keepers of culture, safeguarding priceless objects and their purpose was to educate and enrich life for the public. Although it is not a recent phenomenon, museums are moving away this trajectory and looking for new ways to become more relevant. Many museums have embraced the commercial in order to compete with other forms of entertainment, which manifests in several different forms: corporate sponsored exhibitions and museums (Giorgio Armani exhibition at the Guggenheim, the Gucci Museum), profit orientated blockbuster exhibitions (The Treasures of King Tutankhamun), branding, ubiquitous museum stores and the use of gallery space for private parties or even boutiques. In my paper I will explore these issues through case studies. Has the museum become too commercial aligned? Or in a capitalist, entertainment orientated society, is this what a “post-post modern” museum should look like?

Art Museum as Sanctuary

To many museum purists, including Carol Duncan, art museums are supposed to be a sanctuary; a place where one can contemplate art in a quiet environment (129). In addition, it is a space where “liminality” occurs: the visitor is able to step back from their daily life and reflect on the world in relation to art objects (Duncan, 11). Duncan believes there is a ritual aspect to the museum experience, enacted by the visitor’s exploration of the galleries with the intent of transformation. Their experience can confirm and renew their identity or purify and restore order in their life (Duncan, 12-13).

She acknowledges, in a more recent article “Museums and Department Stores: Close Encounters”, that there has been a shift from art museums as sanctuaries to “…institutions (that) look more like a part of the business world than a realm apart from it.” (129). This is in contrast the public expectation that museums must keep a distance from commercial culture and observe the boundary between “high” and “popular” culture (Duncan, 130). In theory, art museums exist above special interests of any one section of society, they serve the public; however with corporate sponsorship and private donors indicate this is not always the case. More museums are also devoting more space to commerce, which deteriorates their special status as a commerce-free zone (Duncan, 129). Ducan believes in order to preserve their integrity, museums must maintain both an appearance of disinterestedness and interest in the attendance-enhancing allures of commerce (130).

Hilton Kramer, art critic and cultural commentator, believes there is no place in an art museum for any activity other than looking at the art itself. In reference to museum stores and cafes, Kramer states, “Yet with serious artistic matters, with learning or intellectual improvement or aesthetic enlightenment of any sort, these activities often have little or nothing to do. They come under the general heading of social diversions (6).” He goes on to say, “…the-palace-of art, or temple-of-art, ambiance has been dramatically supplanted by the atmosphere of an emporium, a recreational facility, or a transportation center (8).”

Corporate exhibitions and museums

In a study done by the American Association of Museums, only 60% America’s of 2,000 plus art museums have enough income for their endowment to cover their operating costs (Twitchell, 197). Therefore corporate sponsored exhibitions have increasingly become a common practice although it is has a mixed reception in the museum field. Brian Wallis, in his article, “The Art of Big Business”, argues that corporate sponsored exhibitions reinforce class hierarchies through language and representation (28). He describes it as “multinational capitalism for promoting art treasures, while masking private corporate interests”(29). In addition, most corporate sponsors will only finance an exhibition if it doesn’t have any controversial subject matter.

Giorgio Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2000 is a perfect example of a corporate sponsored exhibition lacking art historical context and seemingly more focused on revenue gain (Twitchell, 241). The exhibition was sponsored by In Style magazine and AOL Time Warner and Armani donated $15 million to the museum. In place of modern art, the museum was filled with over 400 objects including suits and dresses. The presentation was theatrical, with dramatic lighting making it appear that there were haloes over the dresses. Although fashion has been long established as art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Fashion institute, it is displayed in historical context whereas at the Guggenheim they were shown as objects of commercial adoration (Twitchell, 241). Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim, argued, “This exhibition demonstrates the museum’s continuing commitment to an investigation of culture in all its manifestations (Guggenheim Press Release)”.

The corporate museum is different than an art museum. Since they are industry-specific, they do not have to same history as art museums. One cannot apply the same expectations of an art museum to corporate museums but since they claim to be museums they have certain codes to abide by. Some of the American corporate museums include Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum sponsored by various record labels, the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan, supported by the networks, World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Kellog’s Cereal City in Battle Creek (Twitchell, 239). The Gucci Museum opened this September in a 14th century building in Florence, Italy. The museum’s intention was to honor the company’s legacy as well as their contemporary innovations such as bamboo-handled bags. Although the museum houses both art and Gucci products such as jewelry and baggage, they are displayed separately from each other. Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of PPR, Gucci’s parent company, donated the contemporary art collection. Patrizio di Marco, president and chief executive of Gucci, stated, “It was Frida’s idea in 2009, but Francois-Henri supported us to make the museum slightly different, not too intellectual, but including contemporary art in partnership with the Pinault Foundation.” The museum store sells Gucci products, which is problematic in terms of conceptualizing the items in the gallery space to be taken seriously as works of art. If there is literally no separation between the things in the collection displayed as works of art and the things one can buy in the store, it negates their status.
Installation View of The Gucci Museum in Florence

Blockbuster Exhibitions

Emma Barker, in her case study, “Exhibiting the Canon: the Blockbuster Show,” argues that in many cases, the blockbuster is not a phenomenon but rather a carefully planned and even staged event. She describes it as an “exhibition that aims for maximum coverage and maximum publicity to attract maximum attendance” (27). Barker states that the blockbuster exhibition can be a scholarly endeavor that serves to educate and entertain its public while also bringing prestige and profit to the host institution. At the same time, however, blockbusters must seen through their relationship with commercialization, from the sale of souvenirs to the alliance with corporate business for sponsorship (27).

The Treasures of King Tutankhamun organized by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is considered by many in the museum field the first blockbuster exhibition and is still the nation’s most popular museum exhibition (Beizer). It opened at the British Museum in 1972 and included around 50 objects. It traveled to many major museums and concluded its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where more than 1.2 million people saw it during its 17-week run (Beizer). Hoving has stated that the concerns of Gamal Mokhtar, Chairman of the Egyptian Organization of Antiquities, over revenues was a key factor in making King Tut a traveling exhibition (Hoving, 405). Hoving had to reassure Mokhtar that the revenue would be at least $3 million in order to convince him to lend the art works. Hoving qualified the exhibition as a success (and rightly so); there was no damage to any piece and the participating museums made hundreds of thousands of dollars through admissions and sales. In addition, the Egyptian Organization of Antiquities received $11 million to renovate Cairo Museum (it has yet to be renovated) (Hoving, 413-414).

More recently, a sequel exhibition, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, debuted at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June 2005. It went on a 27-month tour, including the Field Museum, the Franklin Institute, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the National Gallery of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum. This exhibition traveled to some of the same museums as the original show. It was unique because it was not designed by a museum, but instead was arranged by Arts and Exhibits International (AEI), the National Geographic Society, and concert promoter AEG Live (Beizer).

It seems clear that the intention behind the sequel exhibition was not motivated by scholarly purposes or even by a desire to reach a broader audience. Nancy Thomas, LACMA’s Deputy Director, Art Administration and Collections, was clearly aware of this when she released this statement: “We knew we would be criticized by the press, and we’d have to be pretty stupid not to understand that there’s great concern about the commercial aspects, the partnerships, the production, the whole purpose for doing this show. But I can clearly state that LACMA’s purpose was to bring these material to an audience on the West Coast of the United States” (Beizer). Tom Miserendino chief operating officer at AEG Live stated, “Pulling off an exhibition is not all that different from a Neil Diamond, American Idol, or Justin Timberlake concert…All venues have security needs, and there is always an eye on the visitor experience. (A museum is) a more subdued environment, he noted, Crowds aren’t cheering but you do have people ooohing and aahing as they go through the exhibit (Beizer).” This comment demonstrates why it can be problematic for corporate sponsors to organize a museum exhibition; exhibitions are not like concerts, although they are both forms of entertainment, they tend to be more contemplative and intellectual.

Museum as Brand

James Twitchell, in his article, “Museum World: The Art of Branding Art”, argues branding is an inevitable choice that museums have to make in order to stay relevant. There are approximately 8,300 museums listed in the Official Museum directory in America and Twitchell estimates that the actual number is closer to 11,000. He states,“If you want to increase your competitive advantage and up the gate and fundraising, you are going to have to separate yourself, tell a story what is offered, and establish a brand, or your neighbor non profits are going to squeeze you out of a market” (195). Some museum professionals are hesitant to be associated with the term. For example, Maxwell L. Anderson, ex-director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, released the statement, “I’m careful about using the word branding. I don’t use it unless I have to. It’s obviously appropriate to use in the private sector, but it raises concerns in the nonprofit world” (Twitchell, 193). Others, such as the former director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Kren, fully embrace the term. Kren declared, “Is the Guggenheim a brand? Yes” (Twitchell, 193).

Thomas Kren actively sought to rebrand the Guggenheim starting with the reconstruction of the building. The original building had gray velour walls, drab seats upholstered in plush velvet, and music by Chopin and Bach playing in the galleries. The new building by Frank Lloyd Wright was like an art piece with its interesting spiral layout (Twitchell, 261). To Krens, the museum was a sponsor but also a sponsored brand that could carry the brands of others (Twitchell, 263). This led to its expansion: the Guggenheim in Bilbao, a pocket museum in Berlin, which is a joint venture with and inside Deutsche Bank, Peggy Guggenheim palazzo in Venice and plans for a museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was anticipated to open in 2007 (Twitchell, 265). There is even a Vegas branch inside the Venetian hotel and casino. The Guggenheim galleries are called “treasure boxes” (Twitchell, 269). The Guggenheim as Krens aptly put it, has truly become a brand. By expanding its branches to Vegas, the home of entertainment and spectacle, further exemplifies this.

Museum Stores

Museum stores have had a long history tracing back to 1871; the Metropolitan Museum of Art is attributed to having the first museum store selling where it sold etchings (Dobrzynski). The stores, however, have changed dramatically since then. In many museums, one never has to enter the gallery space to access the gift shop (Twitchell, 248). The British Museum has an offsite store at Heathrow Airport where one can call, place an order and have it product delivered on the plane, so not only do they never have to enter the museum itself, they do not even have to physically enter the museum store. This perhaps is not shocking in a day and age where more and more transactions are being performed online since it is the same as ordering from the museum’s online store. A survey showed that 97% of museum stores are outside admission barriers (Dobrzynski). It’s concerning, however, that museums function as non-profit institutions and the museum store is supposed to be an extension of the museum mission. Shouldn't the museum stores be encouraging people to actually attend the museum and visit the exhibitions? Although the revenue from the store funds is often used for programming and other financial needs of the museum, where is the line of what is appropriate to sell?

The museum stores enjoy profits tax-free as long as their products somehow relate to the museum (Dobrzynski). The Philadelphia Museum of Art sells Rodin Thinker pasta, baseballs with Cezanne’s signature, and van Gogh temporary sunflower tattoos in their store, products that they claim relate to their temporary exhibitions. The store sold 8,750 Cezanne baseballs at $9.50, prompting them to create an “ Artists All Stars” baseball with fifteen artists signatures including Homer, Renoir, and van Gogh. Stuart D. Gerstein, director of wholesale and retail operations, states, “The reason we make these products is so that we relate to everyone.” He goes on to say, “Our audience is changing, and we are looking for new ways to educate the public and promote the building and promote the collection” (Dobryznski).

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has gone so far as to brand its collection with an unofficial mascot, William, a faience hippopotamus. The store has a varietyof products featuring William ranging from a stuffed toy, ceramic sculptures, t-shirts and even a flash drive priced at $29.95 for non-members. In addition, they have 39 satellite stores in the U.S. and overseas (Dobryznski). The Met makes $90 million annually with a gross margin of 50% in revenue from their stores (Twitchell, 249). A study showed that 1 in 5 visitors leaves with a bag in hand (Dobryznki). John Curran, vice president for merchandising activities at the Metropolitan, defends the store, “How should museums stay open: should we raise taxes or raise admissions? The most democratic thing it to let museums help themselves. No one is twisting anyone’s arm to buy these things, and taste is a very subjective thing” (Dobryznski).

Twitchell believes that museum stores help to further create a consumption community and there is a direct correlation from buying an object in the museum store and exiting with a sense of self-satisfaction (246). Perhaps the association with the museum makes the consumer feel less guilty than spending their money at a for profit business. Although there is no denying the monetary benefits of museum stores, many feel there should be a line when it comes to what products are featured. Nicholas Fox Weber, cultural historian, says, “I’m in favor of museum shops; I’m in favor of the appropriate use of reproductions…But you don’t take a great image and put it on a tote bag. It takes people away from the real issues of looking at art" (Dobryznski). At the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, when they redesigned their museum store, Glass Market, they consulted Foresight Design, a retail planning group. Vandy Savage, the director, believes,"There’s a line you don’t want to cross either legally or emotionally, perception-wise. Everyone involved in the museum’s work must know where that is.” She goes on to say that in order for a museum store to be successful, that one must think about the ritual of the space compared to galleries, where things are meant to be viewed and the gift store, they are meant to be touched. In this sense, she believes museum stores are more accessible to the public, who are already comfortable in this setting (Kraus).

The Gallery As Commercial Space

Fundraiser at the Temple of Dendur

The museum gallery space originally was the place to view art now it has become a place to party, be married, and to shop. Many museums are renting out their gallery spaces to private and corporate events. The Metropolitan Museum of Art charges $50,000 to rent out the Temple of Dendur for the night. The Field Museum in Chicago made $1 million in "event income" in 2002 (Twitchell, 245).

Murakami in his work directly confronts the issues of commerce and branding and brought it into the museum gallery space. His mid career retrospective Murakami opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2007 and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, and the Guggenheim Bilbao. Murakami’s art deals with cross branding; he paints, sculpts, curates exhibitions, produces an art festival, makes animated and live action films, and collaborates on commercial products such as Louis Vuitton handbags in 2003, album covers, mtv promotions and cross merchandising with Kanye West. In addition, he has his Kaikai Kiki (supernatural or bizarre) studios in Tokyo and Long Island, NYC, where many assistants who help in the art production as well as mass media products such as key chains (Tully).
Murakami's Louis Vuitton boutique at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Paul Shimmel, the curator of the exhibition, stated, “We don’t want the business of Murakami to obscure Murakami the artist…Everyone thinks all these kinds of ventures—LVMH, what he’s doing with Kanye West—are an indication of greed…but from a financial standpoint, I assure you, for Murakami, doing a painting is by far the most efficient way to make money. There’s a greater demand for his paintings because of all these other things he does." Although Shimmel encourages otherwise, it might not be possible to separate commerce from art when thinking about Murakami’s work. At his exhibition at LACMA, there was a Kaikai Kiki merchandise shop as well as a fully operational (but temporary) Louis Vuitton boutique selling limited-edition accessories designed by the art and Marc Jacobs exclusively for the museum (Tully). This was the first deluxe boutique to be incorporated into a formal exhibition. It is interesting to note the museum received no rental fees or profits from the Louis Vuitton boutique since it would place its non-profit status at risk (La Ferla). Although Louis Vuitton did not directly sponsor the exhibition, it did help pay for the opening party. Art purists believed this completely eroded the line between art and commerce. Art critic David Hickey complained, “It has turned the museum into a sort of upscale Macy’s” (La Ferla). Shimmel notes, “One of the most radical aspects of Murakmai’s work is his willingness both to embrace and exploit the idea of his brand, to mingle his identity with a corporate identity and play with that…He realized from the beginning that if you don’t address the commercial aspect of the work, it’s somehow the elephant in the room” (La Ferla). It is interesting to note that although many people like to compare Murkami to Warhol and emphasize Warhol's influence on his work when it seems that is actually not the case. “I can create something really new, says Murakami “and people will say, ‘Warhol copy,’ something like that. To be honest with you, when I started in this area, I never knew anything about Andy Warhol. I focused on George Lucas and the movie industry.” from reading about it in magazines and watching films.. “I learned a lot about the studio system and transferred that to my art making in Japan.” (Tully)
Murakami's Louis Vuitton boutique at the Brooklyn Museum, New York City


It seems as though it is impossible to escape consumerism in our current society, even in museums. Museums can embrace this necessity without turning into the next theme park. Some museums are self-reflexive and directly address the issue such as the Tate Liverpool, celebrated the impact of commercialism in the show, Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture. The exhibition was co-produced with the Schirn Kunsthalle of Frankfurt and it was the first serious retrospective investigating the impact of shopping on the creation of art. In the middle of one of the galleries was a replica of a Tesco supermarket, including shelves, products, and check out aisles. A real store manager came in each week to change prices and refresh vegetables (Twitchell, 244). If all the revenue gained from blockbuster exhibitions, branding, corporate sponsorship, and museum stores directly benefits the museum, then there is no need for concern. Although art purists may balk at the idea of Rodin pasta or boutiques in the museum galleries, if the revenue continues to support exhibitions and maintain the collection, who are we to judge?

Works Cited

Barker, Emma. "Exhibiting the Canon: the Blockbuster Show," in Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker, vol. 6 of
Art and Its Histories, 127-145. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Beizer, Julia, Susan Breitkopf, and Amanda Litvinov. "Marketing the King: Tut 2 and the New Blockbuster." Museum News, November/December 2005. Accessed November 29, 2011, http://www.am-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_ND05_MktgKingTut.cfm.

Dobryznski, Judith H. "Art(?) to Go: Museum Shops Broaden Wares, at a Profit." New York Times, December 10, 1997. Accessed on December 7, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/10/arts/art-to-go-museum-shops-broaden-wares-at-a-profit.html?scp=1&sq=museum%20shops%20broaden%20wares&st=cse&pagewanted=1.

Dobryznski, Judith H. "ART; Glory Days for the Art Museum." New York Times, October 5, 1997. Accessed on December 7, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/05/arts/art-glory-days-for-the-art-museum.html.

Duncan, Carol. “The Art Museum as Ritual.” in Civilizing Rituals (New York: Routledge, 1995) 7-20.

Duncan, Carol. “Museums and Department Stores: Close Encounters.” in High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, ed. Jim Collins (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002), 129-133.

Hoving, Thomas. Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 402-414.

Kramer, Hilton. "Has Success Spoiled the Art Museum?" The New Criterion, September 1991: 5-12.

Kraus, Amanda. "Extending Exhibits: Integrating the Museum Store." Museum News, September/October 2003. Accessed on December 5, 2011, http://www.am-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_SO03_MuseumStore.cfm

La Ferla, Ruth. "The Artist's Fall Collection." New York Times, November 8, 2007. Accessed on December 5, 2011,

Menkes, Suzy. “Gucci Feed its Florentine Roots.” New York Times, September 27, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/fashion/gucci-opens-a-brand-museum-in-florence.html.

Tully, Judd. "Master of the Universe" Art+Auction Magazine. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/visualarts/Murakami-ArtAuction-10-07.pdf

Twitchell, James B. "Museumworld: The Art of Branding Art." in Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 193-272.

Wallis, Brian. “The Art of Big Business.” Art in America (June 1986): 28-32.


Fundraiser at the Temple of Dendur

"Great Artists" Baseball

Guggenheim Press Release for Giorgio Armani

Installation shot

Link for art

Murakami louis vuitton installation shot

Sarah Jessica Parker with MoMA bag

William flash drive