The Art of Shopping, MFAH-Style
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is often defined by change—new exhibits, new buildings, and now a new general manager for retail operation, Chris Goins. A veteran of Tootsies and Kuhl-Linscomb, Goins will be re-imagining the look and visitor experience of the MFAH Shop and the Shop at Bayou Bend, in addition to the store's online presence and the temporary exhibition shops that pop up with regularity. With a re-design rollout planned for September, Goins took some time out from calling in new products to chat with Houstonia about what visitors can look forward to and how she's challenging the conventional wisdom on what belongs in a museum store.
Houstonia: What made you want to make the move to MFAH?
Chris Goins: It's a great challenge. It will definitely be a different point of view.
With your experience at Tootsies, will we be seeing more fashion in the shop?
I'm open to it. There are a select few museum shops that incorporate a fashion element but it has to be the right fit. Right now I'm concentrating on vendors that are more design-driven. It will be a diversified product mix with an emphasis on design and interesting materials that have function and appeal to a wide audience.
Are there any museum shops that you were inspired by in re-thinking the concept?
I visited several shops prior to starting here and a lot are carved out of the same mold. I went to the [Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute] and the retail shop there was easy to navigate and the product mix was of interest, but what we're doing I don't want to compare to anyone else. We're shifting the paradigm and rethinking how the retail format is played out in a museum.
Tell me a little more about what visitors can expect.
Obviously there will be lines that people will recognize that are iconic and in line with the museum's identity. What I'm concerned with is color, form, transparency; creating this story where people walk in the store and it makes sense to them.
The product mix in there right now is lot of merchandise, so we'll be paring down to a degree and laying it out to have mini-installations throughout the store. I don't want to give away too much—there should be an element of surprise—but it will look and feel different.
So you're talking about both merchandizing the space differently and also offering a more curated selection of products?
I don't like to use the word 'curate' because there are actual curators here, but it will be very edited in such a way that it's not overwhelming to any visitor. A lot of times you visit a store and there's so much that you don't know where to take the eye. There will be products featured in specific areas for exhibitions, books, design objects, and it will be much easier to navigate. We want it to be exciting and inspiring, want people to take their time walking through the store. So much merchandise can be intimidating, we want it to be easy for people to shop and spend time there. Visitors can sit down, read a book, check their iPhone, take a break—there's a place for that.
Are you going to focus on bringing in local makers and designers?
Absolutely. There are quite a few local designers that we currently carry and I'm a Texas girl so I love to go back to my roots. We have a huge talent pool here in Houston, plus Austin, Marfa ... it's about seeing who is out there and how they fit in to what we're currently doing.
Will Bayou Bend's shop be getting a similar makeover?
Bayou Bend has a totally different identity and a very specific personality. It will still be reflective of the decorative objects there, not a complete 180 like we're doing here, but gradually the product mix will be changing, though still carrying wide variety of objects with price ranges from low to elevated with something for everyone. If you're going to engage a wide audience, you really do have to hit all those points while still carrying products of quality. I want people to walk in and say 'Wow, that totally makes sense.'
And you mentioned rethinking the exhibition shops as well.
In the exhibition shops, or satellite shops as we call them, basically the content of the exhibition serves as inspiration ... [Typically] museum shops have exhibition products that are totally indicative of the contents, like a print of a Picasso painting on a scarf or on a mug. There will be some of that, but there are so many opportunities you can explore to be featured in an exhibition space.
With the upcoming Rothko satellite shop I'm so excited, just elated that I've found so many wonderful things. For instance there's a line out of Denmark that has these beautiful objects each with some sort of form or reference to color ... we'll also have cashmere scarves with these gradations of color. They are beautiful and well-priced but the color alone just pops, I immediately thought of the Rothko paintings. Puzzles, too, that have the same effect, this gradient color, it becomes this decorative, functional thing.
What do you want people to come away with after visiting the MFAH shop?
One of the things that we'll be doing [is incorporating] a seasonal change—it'll be significant, so people will notice. The product mix will change, though parts will be ongoing. I think a lot of times when people are going to any museum, visiting the shop is end of their journey, so they walk in expecting a little more art or something about what they've just seen. If we have a show on Andy Warhol, there will be Warhol ephemera and nods to what they just saw but also the history of who was this artist and when he came to prominence. All that info will be right there; it will be a frame of reference. On any other product they'll know what it is, when it was made, the materials used, details that will help any consumer navigate the store. Once we have everything installed it'll be really beautiful.