In the middle ages, pilgrims were known to chip fragments from saints’ tombs then steep them in water so as to consume the holy relics. This autumn, visitors to Antony Gormley’s Royal Academy exhibition in London could purchase a similarly intangible souvenir: a £150 limited-edition perfume made to smell like iron. It was one of a raft of imaginative products that accompanied the sculptor’s retrospective, including a hi-vis jacket with Gormley’s Buddha drawing on the back and a kilogram of clay.
The RA describes its gift shop collaboration with Gormley as probably its closest to date, and yet it is becoming the new norm for museum gift shops. The skyrocketing prices of contemporary artists, cuts in state funding and even the decline of the high street have coalesced into a boom industry for creative merch. Amid the tote bags and novelty mugs, gift shops are brimming with investment-worthy artists’ editions: a Cindy Sherman plate for £450 at the National Portrait Gallery, a rug designed by Howard Hodgkin for £3,500 at Hepworth Wakefield, even a Phyllida Barlow sculpture for £20,000 at Tate.
“Happily, I think the days of direct reproduction of artwork on to product types that don’t relate is pretty much gone,” says Jo Prosser, the RA’s director of commercial and visitor experience.
Some artists shun these merchandising collaborations entirely. Most participate — particularly when the request goes alongside planning for a solo show — but proceed with caution. “It’s just becoming more and more omnipresent that institutions need the artist to make artwork or make some sort of product because of squeezes on funding and lots of competition,” says the artist Cornelia Parker. Having previously been on the Council at the RA, she says she’s fully aware of how a successful shop display from an artist like Anselm Kiefer or Ai Weiwei can “underwrite” an exhibition.
Still, Parker admits she is sometimes “bamboozled” by the exigencies of this growing sector. She was recently asked to sign off on a raft of generic gift shop products that were, as she puts it delicately, “a little less achieved” than she would have chosen, and which had been developed without her collaboration.
But merch is also an opportunity for artists — not just to scratch the back of supportive institutions but also to put their work in reach of the 99.9 per cent of visitors priced out of buying it. Rosey Blackmore, merchandise director at Tate, says artists interested in their work getting “out there” are keen to engage. She worked on a collaboration for Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life exhibition that extended the artist’s interest in sustainability to Tate Modern’s shop, offering discounted exhibition T-shirts in exchange for old, recyclable ones. The artist waived his royalties, making it a useful fundraiser.
Grayson Perry, whose silk scarves remain among the most perennially popular gift shop purchases, insists he makes merch for love, not money. “There’s a democracy in merchandise,” he says. “I try to go from the fridge magnet, a few quid, right up to something that might be a couple of grand.” Why does he think some artists balk at the prospect of seeing their work so widely disseminated? “If they feel their process is part of a philosophy or has nothing to do with the commercial realm, then they’re perfectly entitled [not to],” he says.
The rise in sophisticated artists’ products has created a new niche at the intersection of commerce and creativity. In the UK, the shaded centre of this Venn diagram is dominated by the work of one man: Kit Grover, an American-born designer and painter (although he no longer exhibits) who runs his studio alongside business partner Hilary Arnold. Over a drink on London’s Southbank, Grover tells me he’s produced an estimated 1,500 products since the Gilbert & George Rubik’s Cube that marked his debut for the freshly minted Tate Modern shop at the turn of the millennium — the opening of which he considers to mark the beginning of “museum shop mania” in the UK.
“I spend a lot of time going into a trance with people’s work and thinking about what’s odd or unusual, and how it might connect to anything else that works in a retail setting,” Grover explains. His role is often that of a diplomatic envoy, reconciling the good intentions of celebrated artists who are “willing to consent to, in theory, support the institution” with the pragmatic imperatives of commercial teams.
From his bag, Grover carefully unwraps the end result of one of his trances: a handkerchief produced for Parker’s current exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, which recreates the two-sided embroidery technique found in the artist’s exhibited work. “I do think that some of the products I’ve made with artists are as much art as the things in galleries,” he says. Unfortunately, he won’t be drawn on the “long list” of artists who have refused to discuss merchandise over the years but hints that many have since put their work on tea towels and similar. “I don’t feel vindicated by that, but I say it as evidence that they either had a commercial epiphany or they caved under perceived pressure.”
Is Grover right that artists’ products can, in fact, just be art? Certainly, collectors increasingly treat them as part of the market. Rosie Ripley, retail development manager of Hepworth Wakefield, says the edition of 20 lithographs produced for Christina Quarles’ exhibition sold out before the show opened because of intense commercial interest in the artist. “People are really struggling to buy her painting at the moment because her prices are soaring,” she explains.
But Grover is also referring to a non-commercial measure of value. He recalls the “Meniscus glass” he designed with Richard Wentworth for Tate — a fanciful take on a measuring glass that cost less than £10. “It’s not ‘fast’,” he says. “You have to think about it. And I think, ‘What’s the difference between something on a plinth and that?’” Over email, Wentworth tells me he likes the idea of a “paternity suit” in future years, as the products he has made with Grover resurface and their authorship is debated. It’s unlikely he’ll need to wait that long: an example of the glass is already in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection.
It is, of course, unrealistic to imagine a world in which a stocking filler-priced glass is afforded the same prestige as a gallery work. But if gift shops offer access to interesting art without the premium that comes with exclusivity, then this colourful grey area of commerce is worth celebrating. “I think for lots of people who can’t afford to collect art, sometimes that’s a good way to start,” agrees Parker, adding that even she’s got a Grayson Perry headscarf at home: “I could never imagine wearing it, but I thought it might look good on the wall.”
Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published