An Award-Winning Product Begins with Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup!
By Ava Maxwell, Manager of Retail Operations at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, and MSA/FLA Chapter President
I have been developing products for the Morse Museum for the past 20 plus years and have created many products that represent our collection well, are consistent good sellers, and are those items that customers gravitate toward as a memento of their museum experience. These are the pieces that I can rely on to sell over and over and that I reorder without hesitation.
But, as a “museum shop curator,” I strive to also include those pieces that are less common – those items that both represent a work of art and will WOW a customer, will WOW the staff, and will even WOW the Museum curators and Director. Those exceptional, unexpected pieces that will have your customer thinking they are still in the galleries - and yet they are in my store!
My creative juices are always flowing—I think of ideas constantly, but do not always know how to make those ideas become a reality. I am reminded of something I discovered many years ago, a sudden and very useful tip that came to me while I was devouring a delicious grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of hot tomato soup. It was chilly and dreary outside and, as I finished lunch, I could think of no better or more satisfying combination than that soup and sandwich that had just warmed my body. I remember thinking how great it would be to have that perfect partner with whom to create products—that person who could walk me through the steps from start to finish and be as excited about the final product as I was. I needed to find someone that had an interest in the Morse collection— someone that understood and respected the culture of this museum -- and someone that understood that what flies off the shelves at MoMA might not be at home at the Morse!
It was then that I realized choosing the right partner/vendor is probably one of the most valuable and critical steps to take when considering product development. I needed the perfect partner. The tomato soup to my grilled cheese.
Many years ago, I approached Lars Messler, former President and Owner of Museum Reproductions, to reproduce an Art Nouveau brooch from our collection. Apparently, this was a difficult piece to reproduce due to the nature of the materials (plique- a- jour enamel), combined with an ever-so-slight, but necessary elemental curve, as well as some other technical obstacles–most of which I did not understand. But Lars did understand these hurdles and, as hard as he tried to find the perfect designer, his efforts were in vain. With the artists he found, he knew the finished piece would be unaffordable for our museum store. Both of us were disappointed but succumbed to reality. We went no further with the idea, or so I thought. Apparently for Lars, that idea lay dormant. Fast forward—approximately 8 years later Lars called and said (with excitement in his voice) he thought he found an artist that could design the art nouveau nymph pin and asked that I allow him to pursue this project. Needless to say, I was shocked that he remembered and elated that he found someone that could maintain the integrity of the piece, while creating an affordable piece of jewelry. He had found the perfect partner, as did I. The Eugène Feuillâtre brooch was completed and remains a beautiful reproduction piece from the Museum’s collection.
It was then that I realized how valuable a partnership is in the product development process. Lars was unwilling to compromise the integrity of the art and continued to search until he found the perfect match. I am forever grateful to Lars for teaching me such an important lesson.
Partnering with MSA vendors has generally proven to be a rewarding experience for me, and ultimately for the Museum. There are many stipulations that come with products developed for museums, and the MSA vendors that concentrate on Product Development know these guidelines. So many of these vendors provide a wealth of knowledge and can truly be your personal guide through this journey.
Doing your homework and choosing that collaborator wisely, however, is an important step in providing the best team possible. A reminder: do not set expectations for your product development partner greater than those you have for yourself. Each of you has an obligation to provide the necessary information so the result is successful for both of you.
My years of experience have come with both hits and misses and, like anything else, I love those success stories, but I truly learned from the mistakes! For the novice, creating a project sheet – a “to-do list” of sorts – could be an easy beginning for both you and the developer. This will provide the basic facts and guidelines for you to follow. Helpful hints that address photography guidelines, logo, provenance and descriptive text recommendations, as well as a reminder for proper copyright information. For those who plan to license products, prepared contractual agreements to protect the museum are a must! If you have the assistance of a legal team, it is easier and often more efficient for you to create your own license agreement so you can include all the details that relate to your specific needs. If not, you will need to sign a license agreement provided by the manufacturer/vendor, so review carefully. Remember, you are representing an institution and committing on their behalf.
During an MSA conference in Rosemont, IL, I sat on a panel discussion on the topic of Product Development – the two other panelists talked about the fun and exciting steps-- choosing the images to use, selecting the products to develop, and showing many images of great designs and products. I had the dry portion on licensing and contractual agreements, so you can imagine how exciting my slides looked! I did redeem myself with a pin that I asked one of my vendors to create for me just for the occasion. It read “I Reproduce Professionally …and Use Protection. Ask me about it!” Not only did my pin create much laughter, but that pin also spoke directly to the topic. No one expected to see me wearing a pin with that message, but it reminded everyone of the importance and value of thinking out of the box when creating exclusive products. Even those people who did not attend the session “asked me about it” or looked twice as they passed me in the corridor. You need that EYE catcher, that product that makes your customer STOP, the one that makes someone say WOW.
So, now, I circle back to the title: “An award- winning product starts with grilled cheese and tomato soup”: In the Morse Museum’s collection, the most gorgeous book of watercolor sketches of jewelry designs by Meta Overbeck resides in an enclosed case in the Jewelry Gallery. Overbeck was a jewelry designer who worked for Tiffany and Company, under the direction of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In the gallery, the pages of the Jewelry Design Book are turned periodically so all the designs can be on view. This priceless book is the only existing book of these designs. For many years I have wanted to reproduce this book, and the treasures inside. Visitors have asked about the book, publishers have asked to publish the book, but the risk seemed too great, and the museum director would not allow me to pursue this dream. Finally, in 2018 during a meeting with our Curator and Director, we all agreed to proceed…but with caution. (I had not planned on proceeding without caution, but it was a reminder who was the boss.) A remarkable MSA collaboration ensued in a plan greater than my expectations. Spearheaded by a fantastic Rep (and art aficionado), Donald Burns, we planned a project which became a coordinated team effort with Applewood Books, Museum Reproductions, and David Howell and Co. The book is in the process of being published, (delayed due to the pandemic) and Museum Reproductions, now owned by Steve Collins, has completed six gorgeous pieces of jewelry, designed from the watercolor sketches. The collaborative efforts of these knowledgeable and creative MSA vendor members have enabled the Morse Museum to introduce these works of art to a worldwide community, and that was our ultimate goal! The opportunity to allow so many to experience the depth and beauty of a publication that has been sheltered due to its exclusivity is exceptional. Creating works of art that have never been seen in their completed state is, again, rare. And the icing on the cake was the Buyers Choice Award that Museum Reproductions received for the Fashion Product of the year!
MSA vendors (many more than I have mentioned today) have provided and manufactured the highest level of product design to support the multitude of museums’ works that yearn to be developed. These wonderful pieces are destined to complete our visitors’ museum experiences. So, a round of applause to those bowls of tomato soup that make my grilled cheese so delicious!
Ava Maxwell is the Manager of Retail Operations at The Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, FL. The Morse Museum houses the world's most comprehensive collection works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The museum's holdings also include American art pottery, late 19th-early 20th century American paintings, graphics, and decorative art.