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Museum shop operators are working overtime

Floral-flavored artisanal chocolate bars created by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with Two Friends Chocolates
Floral-flavored artisanal chocolate bars created by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with Two Friends Chocolates

‘It’s no longer about slapping a logo on a shirt,” says Victor Oliveira, director of retail at Gift at the Gardner,the shop at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

“People are hungry for new, little-known products,” he says of the carefully curated offerings found in museum stores these days. “They want to be surprised and delighted.”

As more shoppers click their way through holiday shopping, the serendipity of discovering something unique has somewhat fallen away. So museum shop operators are working overtime to fill shelves (and shopping sites) with the unusual and the extraordinary.

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Connecting with artisans and small-batch makers around the country, Oliveira, who previously held a similar position at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, helps develop products that fit with the museum.

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He worked with local company Two Friends Chocolates to create floral-flavored artisanal chocolate bars based on edible flowers growing in the museum’s courtyard, then sourced Florentine letterpress paper for the packaging.

He also collaborated with the tea sommelier of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. Belle’s Rose Tea was inspired by a blend likely served at parties hosted by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. It’s not only sold in the shop, it’s served in the museum cafe.

“The store is part of the museum experience,” Oliviera says, “Its customers are micro-patrons.”

Indeed, dollars earned at nonprofit museum stores go directly back to the museum as an important source of operating funds. The Museum Store Association, which has more than 600 museum store members, including over two dozen in New England, has proclaimed Nov. 26 the first Museum Store Sunday. With the dollars generated by Black Friday sales, as well as Small Business Saturday and Giving Tuesday, it’s easy to see the appeal.

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David A. Duddy, deputy director for operations of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, agrees that shoppers have become more discerning and the focus is increasingly on the handmade. While the deCordova Store has a long tradition of offering artisan-made items, relationships tend to be with mid-career artists. Current local examples include a hand-woven cotton fiber vessel by Ellen Schiller and perforated ceramic pieces by Lulu Fichter.

“Her work is overwhelming in its detail and all hand-done,” Duddy says.

Liz Adrian, director of retail at the ICA, is attracted to pieces that channel makers’ unique personality traits. She cites the “hysterical” women behind Life Wife Press, with whom she collaborated on ICA pins, and Carissa Potter, a designer behind the cheeky brand People I’ve Loved, as favorites.

“She’s as quirky as all get-out,” Adrian says. “The stuff has both a wisdom and playfulness that is very millennial and very ICA.”

The PMA Store at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, carries items by about 30 local makers evocative of Maine culture. There’s the sailcloth tote made by nearby Seabags, a commissioned design based on Robert Indiana’s “Seven” sculpture. Also Jennifer Nielsen’s pebble jewelry, which is reminiscent of the Andrew Wyeth painting “River Cove.” The museum’s editorial and brand specialist Robert Ker says, “We want to reflect the experience of being in Maine without offering a lighthouse or bright red lobster. There’s plenty of that already.”

Marni Elyse Katz can be reached at marnikatz@mac.com