Museums look to jewellery retail to close funding gap

Shop smarts: The V&A’s Sarah Sevier has overseen the museum shop’s redevelopment, including a new jewellery pavilion © Tolga Akmen for the FT

In May this year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London unveiled a £1m refurbishment to its main shop. Architects Friend and Company were brought in to revamp the 465 sq m retail space for the first time in 11 years. At its heart is a “jewellery pavilion” where 700 pieces are on display at any one time.

The majority of the jewellery is bold and contemporary. Pieces range from enamelled earrings to hammered gold necklaces. Some, such as a grey crystal and pearl-encrusted collar, are inspired by current exhibitions (in this case “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics”). Others are collaborations with the likes of American designer Michael Michaud or British company Mirabelle.

The V&A had a budget of £95m in 2016-17; £16m of this came from commercial activities, which include publishing, licensing, catering and its shops. Of that retail income, £1m came solely from sales of “under glass” jewellery — pieces displayed behind protection, as opposed to “volume jewellery”, the cheaper items heaped in bowls or on stands and priced from £5 to £45. The under glass jewellery can range from £25 for a charm to the low thousands for some necklaces, although the majority of pieces cost less than £200.

Sarah Sevier, commercial director at the V&A, says the museum hopes this year this strand will increase to £1.5m thanks to the new pavilion, a standalone area bounded by its glass display cases.

This income is important. Between 2009 and 2015, the value of UK government grants to museums was cut by more than a third from £423m to £277m. According to the Museums Association, 70 per cent of national museums in Britain reported a decrease in public funding between 2015 and 2016.

V&A’s new jewellery pavilion © Tolga Akmen for the FT

Institutions are concentrating on maximising retail income, therefore, with jewellery a priority. Last year, 55 per cent of UK museums reported an increase in self-generated income; around 15 per cent of total funding now comes from retail. On November 26, in time for the busy Christmas period, the Association for Cultural Enterprises will launch Museum Shop Sunday. Three hundred cultural institutions are taking part worldwide to promote the museum shop as an entity in itself.

The days of gaudy plastic stationery and Monet paint-by-numbers kits are largely over; museum shops have become, according to Ms Sevier, “as much about the experience of your visit as the shopping”. In London, the Design Museum, Barbican cultural centre and Tate galleries have also opened or refurbished shops in the past two years. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art opened a new store this year as well as retail spaces in Kyoto and Tokyo (in collaboration with popular Japanese home store Loft). According to a MoMA spokesperson, it is investigating potential in other countries.

Museum shops benefit from a kind of benevolent inertia, as retail consultant Chris Walton wrote in a report for the Museums Association: “Most visitors to a museum shop haven’t just stumbled in off the street; they have made a conscious decision that the museum’s collections are of interest to them and have decided to spend their free time there.”

The V&A’s new jewellery pavilion © Tolga Akmen for the FT

“People are predisposed to spend money when they’re on a day out and may well be looking for a memento,” says Joanne Whitworth of ACE. “This is borne out by the fact that only around 5 per cent of museums retail profits are generated online.” The V&A recently redeveloped its website to include greater detail about products and better photography; as a result, Ms Sevier says that turnover from jewellery online makes a “considerable contribution”.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, jewellery accounted for a fifth of its $53.4m retail income in 2016-17. “Our bestsellers all have strong ties to the museum’s permanent collection,” says Rich Pedott, vice-president of the Met and general manager of merchandising and retail. The Met’s jewellery collection has thousands of items, ranging from around $40 for a small pendant to more than $3,000 for an 18-carat gold ruby ring.

“We work with artisans around the globe who are skilled in historical jewellery-making techniques, like granulated gold beads, to make direct reproductions from our collection, and also invite jewellers to create new pieces inspired by it,” Mr Pedott says. As jewellery is such a revenue driver, the visual team has been tasked with “creating impactful and imaginative in-store displays to keep jewellery top of mind throughout the visitor journey”.

Rich Pedott manages the Metropolitan Museum’s retail © Emily Andrews for the FT

April Williams, buying manager at London’s Design Museum, which has a shop on Kensington High Street as well as one in the nearby museum, says it sells jewellery, ranging from £10 to £2,500 in price, every day. The Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly does not consider jewellery as significant for its shop, because most of its stock is related to artworks by or books about Royal Academicians (its artist-members). But even buyers here have said they plan to develop their jewellery ranges further. “It’s popular and growing fast,” says commercial director Jo Prosser.

Buyers say success rests on being able to present a unique offering. The Royal Academy can ask its Academicians — world-class artists who include the likes of Anselm Kiefer and David Hockney — to produce pieces. Its most successful jewellery line has been the collaboration between Barbara Rae RA, known for her vibrant palette, and Gail Klevan, a jeweller who makes painterly acrylic cufflinks, brooches, pendants and bangles. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which generates 6 per cent of its shop income from jewellery, capitalises on its unusual architecture; pieces inspired by the Frank Gehry building are its bestsellers, the museum says.

The Royal Academy’s bestselling jewellery line is by Barbara Rae RA and Gail Klevan

A constantly changing exhibition programme helps. The V&A stages at least three large-scale exhibitions each year and numerous smaller ones. As well as the current “Opera” exhibition, those that have inspired jewellery include 2015’s Alexander McQueen show; last year’s “You Say You Want a Revolution” on the music and fashion of the late 1960s; and the blockbuster David Bowie exhibition in 2013.

The sharp disciplines of competitive retail can apply here too. In the shop at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which focuses on striking contemporary pieces, such as work by Melissa Joy Manning and Sarah Richardson, jewellery has accounted for 18-23 per cent of overall sales over the past five years. The retail team seeks out work from individual artists or small studios across the US.

“We have established relationships and track records with a number of artists. If their work continues to sell, they will have a place in the store,” says Colette Randall, the gallery’s director of marketing. Presumably the contrary applies too.

Jewellery designer Marlene McKibbin has a range of unusually cut and dyed acrylic pieces made in collaboration with Mali Morris RA that sell in the Royal Academy shop for between £40 and £480. Ms McKibbin says UK institutions are missing a trick when it comes to sourcing. “I am surprised that museums are supporting so few of our British designers,” she says. “There are plenty of young designers and makers who could work to any price point in many different materials.”

She thinks too few stock higher-quality items — “the sort of piece that does not end up in landfill after a few years, but one that is happily passed on to the next generation”.