How Museum Gift Shops Shape the Way We Look at Art

The 2010 doc­u­men­tary Exit Through the Gift Shop seemed to crit­ics both too con­trived to be real­i­ty and too bizarre to be a hoax: Frenchman-in‑L.A. Thier­ry Guet­ta obses­sive­ly films graf­fi­ti artists and begins pur­su­ing Banksy, who takes over the project and makes a film about Guet­ta, who, at Banksy’s sug­ges­tion, takes up street art, becomes an overnight sen­sa­tion and — to the some­what hor­ri­fied aston­ish­ment of Banksy — sells a mil­lion dol­lars worth of his work at his first show as “Mr. Brain­wash.”

Worth, in the art world, is a rel­a­tive term, as Roger Ebert point­ed out. So what if Guet­ta was doing mediocre riffs on Warhol, among oth­ers? “Sure­ly Warhol’s mes­sage was that Their­ry Guet­ta has an absolute right to call his work art, and sell it for as much as he can.” If he can get away with it, more pow­er to him, but sure­ly there’s a high­er author­i­ty that real­ly deter­mines what we think of as art? Some hon­est body of schol­ars with rig­or­ous stan­dards and gen­er­ous tastes? Sure­ly there’s some­thing more than sales to deter­mine the val­ue of art?

Or maybe, the Vox video above sug­gests, it real­ly is the epony­mous gift shop, whose care­ful­ly curat­ed tchotchkes and sou­venirs include such col­lec­tions as “an ear-shaped eras­er,” writes Micaela Mari­ni Hig­gs, “a $495 Ver­sace t‑shirt… and of course, the clas­sics: post­cards, mugs, and mag­nets.” And that’s not to men­tion all those won­der­ful books…. Muse­um gift shops have con­vinced us that if it sells, it’s art. “Basi­cal­ly, stores are like the ulti­mate cheat sheet — the more you see a piece of art ref­er­enced, the more impor­tant it prob­a­bly is.”

Some vis­i­tors even choose to enter through the gift shop, which may, after all, be no stranger than walk­ing through an exhi­bi­tion the wrong way. Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy Sharon Mac­don­ald describes the retail area of a muse­um as a show’s final exhib­it. Vis­i­tors may feel a lack if they can’t con­spic­u­ous­ly con­sume what they have seen. The more they do so, the more they act as adver­tise­ments for the art on their tote bags. This is by design, of course.

Muse­um gift shops not only see them­selves as rev­enue sources — some pro­vid­ing up to a quar­ter of an institution’s funds — but also as art edu­ca­tors. Store buy­ers col­lab­o­rate with cura­tors, who want to give poten­tial vis­i­tors a sense of their exhi­bi­tions’ main ideas. There is no sin­is­ter plot at work, only the rein­forc­ing, through com­merce, of the museum’s pre-exist­ing cri­te­ria for what qual­i­fies as impor­tant art. But you might see a prob­lem — it’s all a bit cir­cu­lar, isn’t it? — and thanks to the “mere-expo­sure effect,” the cir­cle rip­ples out­ward through repeat­ed view­ings.

It’s a phe­nom­e­non not unlike hear­ing the same song over and over on the radio and grow­ing to like it through sheer famil­iar­i­ty. Do we “appre­ci­ate” art by con­sum­ing its like­ness­es on key­chains and mousepa­ds? Maybe we’re also par­tic­i­pat­ing in a rit­u­al of com­mer­cial con­sent to the val­ue of cer­tain works over oth­ers, most­ly unaware of how over­priced gift shop swag meme-ifies art and ampli­fies cul­tur­al val­ues we could think about more crit­i­cal­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sal­vador Dalí’s Tarot Cards, Cook­book & Wine Guide Re-Issued as Beau­ti­ful Art Books

Behind the Banksy Stunt: An In-Depth Break­down of the Artist’s Self-Shred­ding Paint­ing

Down­load 584 Free Art Books from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Hierony­mus Bosch Fig­urines: Col­lect Sur­re­al Char­ac­ters from Bosch’s Paint­ings & Put Them on Your Book­shelf

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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