March 27, 2017
By Michael Silverman
What does success look like for your museum? Is it setting and attaining a sales goal, increasing store traffic, selling out inventory, all of the above?
At the Oakland Museum of California, it looks like our fall exhibition, “All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50.”
The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland in 1966 by Bobby Seale, who immediately recruited the charismatic, yet highly confrontational Huey Newton. Most often recognized by their black leather jackets and signature berets, the Panthers fought to put a voice to the struggle against oppression for all people, particularly afflicting people of color in inner city ghettos.
The institutional priorities for the Oakland Museum of California are to strike a balance between financial sustainability and social impact, and on all fronts the exhibition delivered. By the time the exhibition came to a close, the museum experienced record-setting attendance and unprecedented media coverage, and, in the store, single-day sales records were shattered on multiple occasions.
I attribute the show’s success to a variety of factors, listed below. Some may be more obvious than others, but all played a part in the overall picture. Can they also play a role in the success of your institution?
- Timing of the Exhibition. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the home-grown Black Panther Party is still relevant today and took on further importance as the presidential election season revealed a nation still in deep conflict about racism.
- Partnerships Within the Exhibition Subject. We were able to coordinate with the Black Panther Party to have its official 50-year celebration at the museum. It included three days of symposiums and a sit-down dinner for more than 700 members from around the world. As another example, M. Gayle (Asli) Dickson, one of the featured artists, was the only female artist who worked on the Black Panther’s Paper. For the first time in 50 years, her work was made commercially available as note cards and custom prints. She was delighted to have her work recognized and was able to personalize her works with several storefront artist meet-and-greets.
- Product Interaction at a Premium. At 80 years old, Seale just released a book published by Abrams, “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers,” to mark the occasion. He signed more than 500 copies that we sold at a premium through a commission deal. During the exhibition’s run, we had every author who introduced themselves to us sign their books. We then stickered them accordingly to be the silent salesperson. For many of the book titles, we were able to promote them as signed first editions.
- Licensing Opportunities. We licensed to sell reproductions of the works of two individuals involved with the subject: the photography in “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers,” taken by Stephen Shames, who is responsible for capturing some of the most iconic images of the era; and the artwork of artist Emory Douglas, whose art is most closely associated with the Panthers as he was their Minister of Culture and artist-in-residence. His art was featured on the back pages of the Panther’s self-published newspaper.
- Careful Consideration of Sensitivities to the Topic. We bought product directly from the Archives of the Black Panther Party so that money still went back to the Party, and we were not perceived as opportunists looking to cash in on a group’s struggle with oppression.
- Extended Store Hours. The store extended hours by 15 minutes after the galleries closed, so that we were not kicking patrons out of the museum who still were inspired to shop after having an emotional experience in the exhibition.
- Subject Audience and Outreach. We reached new audiences, many in economically depressed parts of the city, who had preconceived perceptions of what a museum is. They discovered how we are a cultural hub for social justice in the city.
- Strengthening Existing Product Categories. In the end, buying deep into books, our top-selling category, with a much broader selection than we typically carry is what really made the show a success for the store. If we sold out of any particular title, the remaining stock took up the slack until more stock could be sourced to re-fill.
- Price Point Variety. It was important to have product representation in the lower price point range with items like postcards and buttons. It provided for a robust boost in our capture rate and transaction count.
But success does not mean a lack of challenges. In fact, sometimes success presents new challenges of its own.
One such challenge of the show was to keep merchandise in stock as the sales rates kept exponentially increasing—every time we thought we had enough stock on hand, it still sold out.
Sourcing some of the product through local vendors proved to be an effective tactic for shortening the re-stock time. As an example, we were selling a tote bag from a small supplier on the East Coast. When it was clear the turnaround time was costing us sales, we decided to make our design in house and print it locally with a 2- to 3-day turnaround. This allowed us to move more than 300 units in the final four-week stretch.
We also needed to determine a way to control timing and quantity. To do so, we needed to pivot to buy the T-shirt we were selling directly from the printer, rather than having to use our Panther contact as a middle person. (We ended up selling just shy of 1,000 units!) Before, our Panther contact had to put forth the money to pay for the shirts, and then wait for us to pay them. By being able to purchase the shirts directly from the printer (and still pay this middle person the same commission on the total sales), our Panther contact no longer had to put out their own money and only got paid by us! It allowed us to order any time, any amount.
While there are many ways to measure a success, it’s always a good feeling when the numbers and industry statistics can back up the claims.
According to the Museum Store Association (MSA) 2014 Retail Industry Report, stores with special exhibitions had exhibit sales averaging 11.4 percent of net sales. Throughout the run of this exhibition, exhibition sales averaged 39 percent of total store sales!
But as mentioned, success comes from many aspects and angles. Besides the financial reward that comes along with a well-attended exhibition, we also reaped the benefits of broadening our audience appeal, growing our membership base and improving our visibility as a cultural institution.
Michael Silverman is the Associate Director of Retail and Product Development at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, CA. He is also the Secretary of the Western Chapter of MSA.