The new director of retail has opened two stores inside the museum, is now selling the work of 90 local artists and revamped the web site to sell around the world.
BY Kathleen Nicholson Webber
FOR THE INQUIRER
When celebrated architect Frank Gehry created the long-awaited CORE project addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he carved out two spaces for retail stores just outside the galleries he envisioned. His prominent design underscores the importance of retail to the museum. Each store was to be a thoughtful reflection of the galleries it flanks.
Filling those stores was the job of Christine Kostyrka, who had just been appointed director of retail in 2019, and her buying and merchandising team. They were tasked with designing and outfitting the two new stores and felt the weight of the responsibility of measuring up to the architect’s work. The Design store aimed to celebrate modern and contemporary design and feature global and local jewelry, home décor, and apparel, while the early-American gallery store had to embody a craft feel, featuring papercuts, pottery, rugs, glass and quilted textiles.
The result is two newly merchandised brick-and-mortar shops that opened in May 2021, featuring the work of more than 90 local artists, along with a revamped main store, and an overhauled website that has enjoyed a dramatic rise in sales and set a new paradigm for retail at the museum. The stores are bringing a new infusion of money at a time when the museum is grappling with the impact of the pandemic.
“A retail store at a museum should be better than a regular retail store; your expectations should be higher because you’re in a museum,” Kostyrka said. “It should be the idea of learning something new and finding something you’ve never seen before.”Advertisement
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Kostyrka became just the third retail director there in 30 years. She was granted carte blanche to create a more elevated shopping experience. She approached these new shops like a start-up, employing the innovative, forward-thinking skills she sharpened during her 30-year retail career at top lifestyle brands such as Urban Outfitters.
“For whatever reason, I’ve joined companies just as they were transforming into something else,” Kostyrka said. “I would much rather work on that idea of building something from the ground up than walking into an established business.”
Revenue at museums comes from donors and endowments, memberships, and admissions, and often overlooked is the contribution of retail operations. According to the Museum Store Association, museums make from about 5% to 25% of annual cash flow from their stores. Some museums hire buying offices or retail experts such as Kostyrka and her team to handle purchasing in a more systematic fashion. In 2019, retail operation sales at the Philadelphia museum tallied $3.06 million and accounted for about 4.75% of total operating revenue and support, according to an audit of the institution’s finances.Advertisement
“Every museum has to decide whether or not they want to invest in retail,” said Alia Gray, sales director at Aesthetic Movement, a New York-based global buying office that sells to museum stores including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York and San Francisco Museums of Modern Art. “They have to understand it is an investment and it is something that draws eyes and ears and profit to museums in a way that can be done with integrity.”
Kostyrka is well-suited for her role; as much at home in her duties focused on commerce as those that demand a trained eye for art. The native New Yorker spent her youth roaming the Metropolitan Museum of Art, studied painting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and even taught art briefly. Feeling the pinch of the scarcity of jobs in the arts, Kostyrka changed directions and opened a home goods store on Long Island with no previous retail experience while in her 20s. That led to her three-decade run at such brands as Martha Stewart and Urban Outfitters, where she was the head of the $90 million home category.
At the Philadelphia museum, she would have to draw on all her experience. Not only was Kostyrka undertaking a crucial portion of what amounted to Gehry’s reinvigoration of the main museum building, built in 1928. But she also would have to do all that in the middle of a global economic meltdown.Advertisement
Soon after her arrival, the pandemic struck, shuttering the museum and drying up the foot traffic that its stores depended on. The revamped original store was open just six months when COVID-19 shut the museum down while the new stores were still under construction. Retail sales operations tumbled 40% in 2020 from the previous year to $1.8 million, according to the museum audit.
Other U.S. museums took a similar hit. A 2021 study on COVID’s impact by the American Alliance of Museums found that three-quarters of museums reported, on average, a 40% drop in operating income in 2020. Museums were closed to the public an average of 28 weeks out of the year due to the health crisis, according to the study. The pandemic shuttered the Philadelphia Museum of Art for eight months in 2020. While 2021 sales figures are still being tallied, foot traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, according to a museum spokesperson.
“After the pandemic, the stores were the last thing on everyone’s budget list,” Gray said of museums broadly.Advertisement
The pre-pandemic museum store formula was to rely on visitors and blockbuster shows to sell exhibit books and products. It could be profitable if you had blockbuster exhibits and hordes of visitors.
With the museum doors closed, Kostyrka and her team of three buyers, a merchandise manager, visual merchandiser, and operations manager pivoted to expanding the lackluster website, beefing up the selection from 300 products to 1,500 items and signing a contract for a new web platform.
The merchandising team had little experience with ecommerce but Kostyrka did. “We didn’t have a great product. There was no point of view and the photography wasn’t great,” Kostyrka said.
They worked with a graphic designer to create web pages that made it easier to shop and created product categories aimed at broadening the customer base. The site began drawing customers from all over the world. Web sales soared, increasing by 75% in 2020 from 2019, Kostyrka said, declining to share specific revenues.Advertisement
To create buzz about products, Kostyrka started Instagram and Facebook pages for the stores. “We have recently started experimenting with video via IG [Instagram] Reels and TikTok and the response has been great,” she said. “So much of what we sell has a story, and that story adds value so must be told visually and in an easily digestible, compelling way.”
Kostyrka said it was important that she be as careful in the curation of her offerings as the rest of the museum. Half of the shelves of the main store were previously stocked with books that sometimes sat for years, gathering dust. Now a carefully selected assortment of hard-to-find books from European and small, independent publishers makes up a quarter of inventory.
Buyer Choti Weiler discovered new publishers abroad, as well as local independent imprints such as Beehive Books in the city. Each store in the museum now has its own selection of culturally relevant books on such subjects as female designers and African American artists. Kostyrka worked with the museum’s education department to carry books from visiting authors. The result was that books have since become the retail operation’s top-selling category.
The art museum celebrates local artists
The pandemic stirred up more challenges than just diminished foot traffic. The museum wasn’t immune to the tangled supply chains that threatened other retail operations. Kostyrka increased her reliance on local artists and vendors, a move she had intended to make before the pandemic.
“Local has meant we have more opportunities for collaborations and custom designs,” she said. It also means a quick turnaround and fewer supply chain issues.
Local artists now account for 25% of the products in the total retail mix, Kostyrka estimated. She cites the example of Kristen Buck, an artist who makes pie plates, mugs and bowls with a mystical vibe.
Buck said Kostyrka discovered her work at a crafters market and invited her to the museum to talk about collaborating. “It is an amazing privilege to be in these stores, the ultimate compliment,” Buck said. The museum has sold dozens of her pieces and she said that allows her to support herself with her work.
“Many of the local Philly makers grew up going to this museum; it’s like their home,” Kostyrka said. “To be able to partner with them in that way and support them in that way has been a gift.”
The curators appreciated how the galleries and shops are tied together. “Christine and [merchandise manager] David Lincoln looked hard at the collection, talked to us about the installation plan, and made a big effort to find local artists making work that responded creatively to the objects in the galleries, from wood and glass and ceramics to textiles and painted objects,” said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art. “It is also great to support our local artists, and brings a unique Philadelphia flavor to our visitors.”
Drawing with the Diana pencil
Kostyrka has products that cost less than $5 and some that are $5,000. A bestseller resulted through a partnership with Blackwing pencils, a highly collectible brand and popular with art students who sketch when visiting the galleries. Blackwing worked with Lincoln to create an all-gold Diana pencil, embossed with an arrow, in honor of the Diana sculpture in the Great Stair Hall at the museum. A box of 12 costs $35.
Since launching the product in late 2019, the museum has sold close to 3,000 units, mostly to collectors in Japan, Korea, Australia and the U.K.
Analytics have shown that half of online purchases are made using a phone, so Kostyrka plans to launch a test of text message marketing this spring. She and her staff began using Lucky Orange, a heat mapping tool in April 2020 that gives a glimpse of what customers are searching for on the website in real time and includes functions that allows museum staff to assist with purchases in real time.
Kostyrka spends a lot of time on that app, answering questions to better understand the online customer. “COVID has shown us the necessity, not only from a retail perspective, but just from a content perspective, of chatting and engaging with potential visitors when they can’t come through the doors,” she said. “[Digital] is not an area where I think a lot of museums have invested money, but I think a lot of that is changing.”
This spring, Kostyrka aims to stage a pop-up market, inviting local artisans to sell at the museum. Like any start-up, Kostyrka plans to be nimble and reexamine her needs and new opportunities. One idea is to look at licensing opportunities to use their imagery on such lifestyle products as fashion or home items. “It gives us better margin, and unique products you can’t find anywhere else, which helps us turn the page from the expected to surprise and delight.”
So far, the administration is encouraged. The retail operations team prioritized telling Philadelphia stories, appealing to diverse audiences, insisting on ethical and sustainable manufacturing and responsible packaging, said Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board.
“One of our stores celebrates our new galleries for early American art, and each time I go through, I smile knowing that everything it offers opens a little window on history and the collection,” Miller said. “That the store achieves this with style, humor, sophistication, and a love of the museum speaks to all we’ve been trying to achieve in the retail experience.”Published Jan. 23, 2022