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The Art Of The Museum Sale

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Johnny Marshall, 2, of Ann Arbor, reflects on an item in the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum's gift shop. Shops at local non-profit institutions put a premium on merchandise with educational or artistic value. 


The art of the museum sale


MAR 9 1992


In 1984, the “gift shop” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art was just a desk where a clerk sold postcards and note paper.

Today, the shop has its own space off the museum lobby and sells art-related toys, books, scarves, jewelry and ethnic items.

Museum Administrator Janet Torno says the shop has gradually become a destination, rather than merely someplace to cruise after a museum visit. Shoppers come in to buy an art-related birthday gift, then take a spin through the museum as an afterthought.

The gift shops at the Museum of Art and other local non-profit institutions are no retail powerhouses. But with the built-in appeal of their artistically or educationally inspired merchandise, they are winning customers while furthering the work - and improving the bottom line of their institutions.

The university encourages both Torno and Annette Anzick, gift shop manager, to stock the Museum of Art shop with gifts that teach about art as a way of stretching the museum’s mission.

Then too, as government grants slide away and the recession deepens, those trustees are counting more on the shop for operating funds.

“But we’re not just money changers in the temple,” says Torno. Each item gets scrutinized: Does the African mask teach something about good art, specifically African art in the museum’s collection?

To encourage visits last year, Torno and Anzick offered a free museum poster to every U-M student presenting a valid ID. Response was so overwhelming that this year, the offer is limited to incoming freshmen. So far, the museum has handed out over 1,000 posters.

Torno came to the museum 12 years ago with a bachelor’s degree in math from the U-M and gradually worked up from a secretary’s job. The gift shop grossed $125,000 last year, five times what it was making when expansion began in 1984.

New for Torno and Anzick is the push toward product development. Taking a cue from Japanese scrolls in the the museum, Torno and Anzick have had black tote bags decorated with white calligraphy. They’ve also ordered more postcards of collection paintings, planning to sell them not only in their own shop, but in others around the country.

“We try to be sensitive to local businesses,” says Torno. She and Anzick avoid items carried by shops nearby.

Cynthia Yao, director of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, says the gift shop there got started shortly after the place opened 10 years ago.

Sandy Toivonen, shop manager for four years, chooses items that teach about the exhibits and sets prices with kids in mind. A Chinese yo-yo, for example, goes for 24 cents. The shop’s most expensive item, a tangle puzzle, goes for $40.

While operating on a shoestring, the shop does OK. It grossed $90,000 last year. Yao says the museum depends on the shop for part of its operating funds, but hasn’t been so dependent on government money that cutbacks have hurt.

Toivonen notices more teachers using the shop as a resource. “They bring their classes to the museum, see the shop, then come back later for things to help teach science,” she says.

To help teachers, parents and kids, staffers at the Hands-On Museum, aided by U-M physicist H. Richard Crane, have just recently written a spiral-bound Exhibits Guide. For $12, readers learn more about things like the Duck-Un-der Kaleidoscope, the Bernoulli Ball and Soma Sets.

At the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Carolyn Patterson does similar teaching. Her shop’s out of the coatroom where it lived for a long time, and into the garden lobby.

With degrees in elementary education and long experience as a gardener herself, Patterson stocks books kids like: Yucky Reptiles, Peek a Bug, and The Houseplant Coloring Book.

Adults often take home the latter, along with exotic house plants and their explanatory index cards. (When it’s warm, Patterson also stocks venus flytraps for kids.)

The shop, which began in 1976 with extra plants from the garden on a hospital gurney, grossed $100,000 last year. Like Torno and Toivonen, Patterson gradually has seen her shop become a destination for shoppers.

But whether someone heads for the shop to pick up a birthday present or slides through after a visit to the main event isn’t crucial to the three women. Either way, they’re not just making a sale; they’re selling something they believe in.