How To Get Your Foot in the Door of a Museum Store
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Can you imagine the wonder you would feel if you could see your artwork glinting away inside a case (or up on a shelf) of a swanky museum store?
But what would you need to send to a museum store manager to make that dream a reality?
Do you even have a chance of getting your art in there?
Well, turns out you have a darn good chance—if you’re willing to do some homework.
What Do Museum Store Managers Want?
“When an artist does their homework — it makes all the difference in the world,” said Stacey Stachow, manager of the museum shop at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford CT.
Like other museum managers, Stachow wears two hats at work. She is both the shop manager and the rights and reproductions coordinator at the Wadsworth.
So she appreciates a well-prepared submission from an artist. Because it saves her time.
But what differentiates a decent submission from one that goes straight into the circular file?
Stachow was kind enough to give me the skinny on the four components of a winning submission package.
She’ll also share the three things to avoid doing if you want a relationship with a museum store.
4 Things To Include to Make Your Museum Store Submission Stand Out
1. The “I’m A Good Fit” Intro Letter
Want to create a winning submission?
Do what most artists never do:
Find and read the museum’s mission statement.
Most museums have a “mission” tab on their website that will take you right to it.
(Read why this is vital in my first museum store post in this series.)
Let the museum store manager know what the tie in is between your work and their mission.
It would also be a great idea to let the manager know the connection between your work and something the museum currently has on display or will be displayed in an upcoming exhibition. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say shell artist Melissa Witherspoon is sending a submission package to Virginia’s Maritime Museum.
She could convey to the museum manager why her work is a good fit for that museum shop in the following way:
Witherspoon may begin her intro letter speaking about the museum’s collection of antique sailor’s valentines.
She might go on to mention that her love of the Caribbean history surrounding sailor’s valentines inspired her to make intricate miniature versions of that same shell-based art.
Witherspoon could then suggest that visitors to the Maritime Museum might love to take home a tangible piece of their visit that day by purchasing one of her intricate, handmade sailor’s valentine necklaces.
(Necklaces, by the way, that will include a hangtag outlining the history of sailor’s valentines which Witherspoon will be happy to prepare specifically for this museum shop’s visitors.)
Including specific information like this in your letter will only take a few minutes. But it demonstrates you comprehend the needs of the museum. It shows the shop manager you’ve done your homework.
So what else goes in your packet?
2. Include a Technique/Bio Sheet
“I like it when an artist can educate me on their techniques,” said Stachow. “It helps me to then be able to educate my shop associates and visitors about the artist’s work as well.”
Don’t forget to mention what inspired you to make this specific line of art you want the museum to carry.
Pop a brief artist’s bio on to the end of this sheet. This will let the manager know about what school you went to or what you studied outside of any school that is relevant to the work you are presenting.
3. Product Sample?
Stachow advises you to test the museum store waters by first sending a query email to a manager before sending an actual physical packet in the mail.
Type up an email to the museum store manager with photos of your art along with a brief explanation of why you think your specific line of work is a good fit for the store.
If the manager shows some interest, go ahead and send a more detailed package with some kind of sample in it if appropriate.
“It’s nice to be sent something I can see and touch for quality,” said Stachow.
Consider making a miniature sample version of a ceramic or metal piece to give to the shop manager. Or why not send a hand-painted postcard in your packet if you are looking for that shop to carry prints of your paintings or watercolors?
Let’s round out your submission by bringing in the big guns.
4. Wholesale Price List or Line Sheet
If your art is a good fit for a museum shop, including a line sheet in your packet could make your submission effortlessly rise like cream to the very top of the submission barrel.
Because about 75% of artists don’t include wholesale prices, never mind line sheets in their submissions.
“Most artists will only tell me the retail price but I really need to know what the wholesale price so I can adjust the retail to what I think our customers will spend on the item,” said Stachow. “I also have to keep in mind that I need to mark items up enough to cover all the member and volunteer discounts. Ideally, I would love to get a line sheet from every artist approaching the shop.”
Here is a fantastic intro article on what a line sheet is, why you need one and options for making them.
You may also want to check out this cool YouTube video by Carolyn Keating on how to make a beautiful free line sheet yourself in Canva. I also have seen what look to be great line sheet templates you can download for around five bucks on Etsy.
For crazy extra credit in museum store land, consider taking a good online course to familiarize yourself with the beauty and profitability of wholesaling for creatives.
Okay, we’re done talking about how to to get your foot in the door. Now let’s look at three ways to make sure you don’t have that same door slam in your face.
3 Things Not To Do When Wooing a Museum Store
1. Don’t Spray and Pray
By that I mean don’t give one museum shop the same submission package you give other museum shops. Show the manager of your dream store that you have done some research and have chosen their specific shop because your work belongs there.
2. Don’t Go Around to Get Through
Avoid going to another department to get your foot in the door. “It does not help if you go to the marketing or development departments to sell your items,” said Stachow. “Those departments do not typically make the decision of what is sold in the museum store.”
3. Don’t Gate Crash
Want to plummet your chances of getting your art into a museum store?
Come in without an appointment and ask to see the shop buyer.
“It’s common sense not to come in without calling ahead and setting up a time, but you’d be surprised at how often it happens,” said Stachow.
Okay, let’s end with some bonus tips.
5 Bonus Tips for Getting Art Into a Museum Store
1. Watch for Special Exhibitions
Begin your museum store quest by just signing up to email lists of museums you love, or would one day love to visit.
Keep your eyes peeled for special exhibitions that have a tie in with your work.
The museum will usually announce special exhibits six months ahead of time.
If you see an upcoming exhibit that has your name on it, send something — pronto. You want to give the museum store manager enough time to put you in for that show.
2. Get the Timing Right
“I am constantly gathering information on artists when I think their work may fit into my merchandise plan for a particular show. This could be years out. I like to have everything in hand for special exhibitions about a month to a month and a half before the exhibition opens.”
Stachow usually buys seasonal products by the end of February for the upcoming year. That includes Holiday cards, ornaments, and calendars.
So send holiday-related work up to a year in advance.
3. If You’re Serious, Join the Club
Accessing the names, nevermind the email addresses of managers at larger museum stores can be like trying to break in and rob Fort Knox.
If you want to create a major income stream by selling to multiple museum stores consider paying the fee to join the world’s biggest trade association for museum shop professionals–the M.S.A.
“I recommend artists join the Museum Store Association,” said Stachow. “You will have access to a helpful network of Museum Store buyers all over the world.”
4. Be Patient
The museum shop world is about relationships and not always about sales.
“A museum store buyer may love your work but it just doesn’t fit in at this time or we are thinking of it for a particular special exhibition.
With this in mind, buyers are always on the lookout for new items and sooner or later we will be placing orders with you when it fits into the grand scheme of things.”
That’s why Stachow advises you to be patient. If you have an established connection with a shop occasionally send postcards of your latest work if it fits that particular store. Something good may come of it a little way down the road.
5. Fly Your Brainy Freak Flag With Pride
Museum stores are physical extensions of the wonderful world of museums. And because of this, they offer artists something even more fun than money.
They can validate and honor our deep dives into the brainy/eccentric gardens our art often grows from.
I think museum stores can validate artists in a specific way that much of the rest of the world can’t.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Let’s say it’s Thanksgiving. You’re at the family table and you begin passionately talking about how you are making these amazing, historically accurate, miniature replicas of the film sets for movies like “Gone With the Wind.” That’s nice, but your conservative Uncle Fernando across the table may secretly be thinking you should be institutionalized.
But if you have the guts to say the very same thing in writing about your “Gone With Wind” miniature room boxes to that brainy buyer at the Museum for Cinema Miniatures in Lyon, France; she’ll probably think you’re a genius.
So I urge you to devote one delicious tea-filled morning to researching museums.
And I urge you to devote one coffee-fueled afternoon to making your first line sheet and intro letter.
Because getting your art into a museum store could help you believe in the beauty of your brain and the beauty of your dreams.
And that would be sweet because as Eleanor Roosevelt said:
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt