An artist once asked me why is it museum gift shops look like department stores?
How is it that every blockbuster exhibition has a stall at the end of the show selling memorabilia with umbrellas, keychains, coffee mugs, etc.? There was a time when all you could buy at an exhibition was postcards of the great masters.
Other than referring to the artworks through stencils, lettering or silkscreen images the objects have nothing in common with the Art. More visual clutter assaults the confused viewer who enters or exists and finds the allure of Van Gogh magnet holders, Gauguin umbrellas and Rembrandt refrigerator magnets manufactured in China. Just in case the viewer forgets the experience of the exhibition, a scarf decorated with a print or part of the artist’s work serves as a practical reminder.
Do cultural institutions need these objects to keep a museum running? Yes, they do and museums are big business. Museums help the economy and add status to a city, and in other parts of the world or country, so it is not assumed to be a cultural desert.
What happens to one’s perceptions, discernment and appreciation upon walking into the galleries face to face with authentic emotional, aesthetic and spiritual experience that good art offers to those who come with careful looking? Does the viewer become jaded confused and/or disoriented by stopping first to the shop where all that glitter and baubles entice?
Questions worth pondering as more and more museums are built with extensions and bigger wings.
Last but not least, who could afford what is seen on the Museum walls? Maybe gift shops afford the viewer a vicarious opportunity to own something from the museum because not many people could afford what’s on the walls. There is however, plenty affordable Art made by local Chicago artists. Turning the museum shop into a gallery for Chicago or Midwestern artists would be a dynamic addendum to fill that space with affordable Art where hopefully the minds and hearts would be rewarded with original Art.
That would lessen the ever more apparent anomaly that visitors have more empathy for the kitsch in the shop that the works in the exhibition spaces.
As we work to bring back critical discourse to the Visual Arts, please share your thoughts and comments with us.
Annie Markovich, Chicago Editor
Volume 30 number 1 August / September 2015 page 5