Arts and Culture

If you walk into the Speed Art Museum’s gift shop right now, you’ll see a lot of items — thousands, actually — ranging from jewelry to books to art-themed ties and coffee mugs. Many of them have very little to do with current exhibitions.

But that’s about to change.

In the upcoming year, the Speed Art Museum’s retail strategy will transition towards selling fewer items that are more tailored to current exhibitions. And this will result in some layoffs, at least until the new strategy is in place. Interim president Stephen Reily said it’s a decision that comes from community input that area shoppers don’t rely on the museum as a place from which to buy “scarves, earrings or umbrellas.”

On the surface, this seems like a pretty uninteresting move — mainstream retailers are constantly tweaking their strategies.

But this transition actually provides an interesting look at what local museum leaders notice about how and why visitors patronize their gift shops, and how that’s changing.

“I’ve been at the Speed for seven months, and the museum has been reopened for over 18 months and so we had a lot of time — or a good amount of time — to evaluate all the things that are going really well and things that need adjustments,” Reily said.

A ‘Something For Everyone’ Concept Wasn’t Working

The things that are going well at the Speed? Reily said exhibits and programming.

“We have seen membership growing faster and our after-hours events are going gangbusters, there’s been 55 sold-out screenings of ‘Loving Vincent,’” Reily said.

But the retail store wasn’t garnering the same amount of attention — or nearly the same amount of revenue.

Reily said when the Speed reopened, there was an ambitious plan from leadership centered around having a freestanding retail store to sell those thousands of items; think something similar to the gift shops found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Portrait Gallery.

“And what we have found is that ambition of having a freestanding ‘something for everybody’ retail concept really is less connected to our mission right now and was not making money,” Reily said. “We didn’t see an easy way to make it profitable.”

Unlike major museum gift stores like the Met’s, the Speed’s store wasn’t a destination for local shoppers. This is why Reily said it makes sense to downsize and begin offering a smaller selection of carefully curated items that relate to individual Speed exhibits. These new retail areas will also be more integrated with the rest of the museum, rather than in their own central location.

Reily said during this transition between retail concepts, all four of the current staff members at the Speed gift shop will be let go; however, once the ongoing retail strategy is more concrete, he said corresponding staff positions would be posted.

The early part of next year will be dedicated to determining more specifics about what sorts of retail experiences could be profitable at the Speed Art Museum — which, most likely, aren’t the same sorts of experiences that have proved profitable at other area museums.

For Some Museum Shops, ‘Local’ Items Sell

Penny Peavler is the president of the Frazier History Museum; she also served as the director of marketing at the Speed Museum for 10 years.

Peavler said it’s not uncommon for museum stores to go through redesigns and strategy shifts as they gather more information about what their customer base actually wants to buy.

“The Frazier Museum has always had a healthy inventory of local products, such as bourbon balls and bourbon-related gifts and locally-made craft items,” Peavler said. “We’ve expanded that in the two years since I’ve been with the institution.”

There were several reasons for that expansion, which has manifested in different ways.

For example, in September, it was announced that the Frazier History Museum would become the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail; as such, the museum is now pursuing its liquor license so it can sell specialty bottles of bourbon.

Peavler said the store has also increased the amount of Kentucky Proud items it sources, which serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it ties into the museum’s mission of “telling Kentucky’s stories”; on the other, it sets the gift shop up as a prime stop for tourists on foot.

“And I think our unique location on West Main Street creates a lot of repeated walk-by opportunity, not only visitors to the museum, but visitors to downtown, and we wanted to make sure as a gift store that we had a diverse product offering.”

But, Peavler said, their retail strategy is unique to the Frazier and each museum needs to find what works best for them.

For Reily at the Speed, that means making the retail space as profitable as the rest of the museum; he said both museum donations and cinema ticket sales are at an all-time high right now.

“What we feel like initially is that it will be much more integrated into the other spaces of the museum where people actually are,” Reily said. “Whether that might mean in the cinema, at times, or the atrium, or we haven’t been selling special exhibit merchandise up where the exhibits are.”

Which means sometime next year, there will be mini-shops popping up in various areas of the Speed, in an effort to profit from a retail experience that better reflects the museum’s unique exhibitions.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.