August 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

In February Brucejquiller posted an essay entitled, MUSEUMS TRASH THEIR BOOKS that cited examples of museums of all sorts outsourcing bookstore operations or drastically scaling back their book inventory to make way more profitable items.

Museum shops, like all brick-and-mortar bookstores, are struggling against the Amazon juggernaut and the poor economy. Pressure to reduce inventory is constantly at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Paul Schumacher, the book buyer at The Walker Art Center. He is doing his best to carry the most unusual art books possible, and looking for books not available on Amazon.

The Taschen Books take-over of display space at the Art Institute of Chicago’s store, an arrangement first revealed on this blog last April, set a shocking new precedent. We are still waiting to see if other stores choose to follow this lead.

(As it happens the Art Institute bookstore employs one of the most knowledgeable and capable book buyers inside or outside of the museum world, an artist of highly original work named Brent Riley.)

An attempt at a survey was made by brucejquiller in order to find out how art museums view the future of their stores. Turned down by 109  grant-making institutions and government agencies, rejected by 42 interns whose free labor was sought, this blogger gave up on any serious pretensions to completeness and used his nimble fingers to e-mail the ten most popular American art museums as defined by a couple of websites responsive to a google search for “ten most popular art museums.”

Five questions were sent to the media contacts of these museums.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art told me my questions would be answered, but this never happened.

I considered posing as a News of the World reporter, threatening to hack all museum phones if responses to the survey were not forthcoming, but, on the stern advice of the Brucejquiller legal team, I abandoned this plan of action. So, my failure to wake the sleeping giants notwithstanding, here are the questions and answers I have to offer:

BRUCEJQUILLER: How do you see the future of your store?

STUART HATA, Director of Retail Operations, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Books are central to the educational mission of the Museum Stores of the de Young and Legion of Honor. We are known for our astute selection of quality art books and significant publications that directly reflect the collections and exhibitions of the Museums. We are also very proud to be the leading art history bookstore of the Western US. Books have always been and will always remain a key category in our Museum Stores.

BERNARD BONNET, Book Buyer, Museum of Fine Arts Houston: A museum store, especially in cities like Houston that do not benefit from tourism, depends mainly on the museum’s exhibitions and activities. At the MFAH, the bookstore, in addition to its own program of events, is always involved in all the ones organized by our Education, Public Programs and Curatorial departments. We are also working hard to develop our own identity, beyond our affiliation to the MFAH, by developing a kind of customer service one finds in independent bookstores. At the MFAH, there is a long tradition of support for books, not only in the Retail Department but also in our library which is one of the best ressources for researchers and art amateurs in Texas and beyond. Our Publications Department is also extremely active and our catalogues and books are distributed in the world by our partner Yale University Press.

BRUCEJQUILLER: Have you cut back on staff and book selection in the last few years?

BERNARD BONNET: Not really. The book team involved in the buying and receiving is the same. The sales staff fluctuates with the seasons and exhibitions. We have reduced or suppressed some of the book departments in the store like Fashion and Decorative Art, and now we carry only the strongest new titles and/or the ones directly related to the museum activity. Also, our buying is fairly conservative and prudent. Regarding the purchase of exhibition catalogues, the book buyer is always consulted on the contracts by the Curatorial or Publications Departments and he decides on the final quantity which is not always the case in other museums. The first consequence of this practice is that we have considerably reduced the quantities.

BRUCEJQUILLER: What position do books occupy as part of your product mix, that is, what percentage of your display space do the books take up? Do you consider books particularly important, or are they a necessary evil, because clearly other things are more profitable?

STUART HATA: Books take up 40% of the store’s space. We feature books throughout the store and especially at the front entrances. We also have a special section devoted to the Museum publications published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Books are also our best selling product category in our stores and directly fulfill the educational mission of the Museum Stores.

CHLOE SIMON, Museum Stores Manager, J. Paul Getty Museum: The size of the Center Store is approximately 1,800 sq. ft, dedicating a little over 400 linear feet to book display (with additional square footage for books within changing displays alongside merchandise); the Villa Store is approximately 1,335 sq. ft. with about 200 linear feet for books (with additional square footage for books within changing displays alongside merchandise). We are committed to offering an excellent selection of publications to our visitors that support the Museum’s mission and reflect all areas of the Museum’s collections, and we dedicate a significant amount of space to book display.

BERNARD BONNET: The books occupy more or less a third of the store. The collection (around 8,000 titles) is located in the back of the store and organized by sections (Modern and Ancient Art, Civilizations, American and European Arts, Reference, Architecture, Decorative Arts and Children Books). The museum catalogues have a prominent place. The books and catalogues along with the gifts related to the current or upcoming exhibitions and events, are displayed in the front of the store.

An evil is never necessary and books are not evil … It is true that the margin generated by books is less important and that the books require more attention and work (single unit purchases, special orders, returns, etc …) At the MFAH, we do consider that books are important. We are ready to adapt to the evolution of the book business (online sales, e-books).

BRUCEJQUILLER: Would you consider or are you now considering entering into the sort of arrangement with Taschen or another publisher that the Art Institute of Chicago recently did, that is, 25% of their book display space turned over to Taschen?

STUART HATA: We are not considering entering into this type of agreement.

CHLOE SIMON: We would not consider this type of arrangement with any specific publisher. Our goal is to provide a broad selection of related titles to our visitors at various price points, and this is something we achieve by obtaining books from a number of publishers without requiring that a certain percentage of our stock come from any particular vendors.

BERNARD BONNET: Clearly: no. A Taschen store is not a bookstore: it is just a Taschen store… Our bookstore is based on the quality and the diversity of our collection. We carry the best books published by Taschen and we are always open to collaborate with them on special events, lectures, signings… Why should we give up a considerable part of our retail space? Our relationship with Taschen is, however, excellent and we are one of their very best museum accounts. It is not by chance that they did not approach us with this type of offer. As book professionals, we buy the books we want and display them the way we want.

The press release announcing the Art Institute deal quoted David Thurm, Chief Operating Officer of the Art Institute of Chicago: “…We are very excited to be the first American museum to partner with TASCHEN in this innovative way, and we look forward to TASCHEN flourishing even further in our retail spaces.”

Thurm’s “even further” will likely spell the end of the Art Institute’s bookstore as we knew it. Let’s be glad there are museums willing to draw the line against giving up control over their stores.


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