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IMA's new design store bucks frugality trend

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Fritz King pines for a $65 dish rack.

It isn't just any dish rack. This is bright orange polypropylene filled with green-tipped dish-holding fingers. The punchy, futuristic houseware calls to King from a high shelf at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Design Center.

"Look at this wonderful, sculptural piece," King said. A self-described "design freak," he envisions making the Dish Doctor by Marc Newson the finishing touch on his next kitchen remodeling project. "Look at the wonderful, artistic quality of that."

The 1,600-square-foot shop is full of mundane objects designers have elevated to pricey icons. The $18 fly swatter by Philippe Starck is a top seller. For $679, a visitor also could take home a low-slung plywood chair designed by mid-century master Charles Eames.

While the shop is an oasis for people like King, a retired lawyer who is president of the museum's Design Arts Society, it might not move much merchandise during a deep recession. Even Target, the retailer known for bringing well-designed goods to the masses, is putting more emphasis on price over style, said New York retail analyst Walter Loeb.

Gift shops cater to a more refined customer, but even museum-goers are spending less for mementos, Loeb said.

"I was in a gift shop in Berlin the other day, and I bought a postcard," he said. "There will be fewer people who will be buying at the gift shop a very expensive Eames chair, or something like that."

The shop opened last October as a complement to the museum's 20th century design collection, which curator R. Craig Miller expects to grow exponentially.

Museum CEO Maxwell Anderson hired Miller in 2007 as part of a new emphasis on design and contemporary art. Miller had spent 17 years at the Denver Art Museum which has an architecture, design and graphics collection of 11,000 objects.

Much of what Miller has acquired for Indianapolis will be part of a major exhibition, "European Design Since 1985," opening March 8. Well-attended exhibitions tend to pump up gift shop sales. Retail Manager Julie Sell said the show will be like a debut for the Design Center as well.

The IMA added the shop just months before endowment losses forced spending cuts here and at museums across the country. As of Nov. 30, IMA's endowment was worth $278 million, down 27 percent from the same date in 2007.

In late February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would close 15 under-performing satellite stores around the country. Chairman James Houghton said in a letter that the New York institution's retail operations are "subject to the same consumer forces affecting these sectors around the nation."

The Met is also freezing salaries and making other cuts because its endowment dropped 25 percent since June 2008, to $2.1 billion.

In December, the IMA trimmed $1.7 million from its $28.1 million budget by freezing salaries, putting off hiring, and delaying the opening of its Art and Nature Park from this fall to spring 2010.

Gift shop revenue — sales at the main gift shop, combined with sales at the design center — reached $1 million for the first time in 2008, but IMA spokeswoman Katie Zarich said it's not clear whether the retail operations are profitable because the museum has not accounted for the cost of salaries.

The Design Center occupies space that had been used for temporary exhibits. The museum spent $115,000 building out the shop, which is on the ground floor, across from the main gift store.

To be sure, museums generally view gift shops as a way to promote their collections, rather than as profit centers. Zarich said museum managers will look for the retail operations to turn a profit eventually.

"There's a new sense of urgency around examining everything," Zarich said. "We have aggressive goals to realize increased profit in this area."

The Design Center is part of the museum's wider retail strategy, which includes parlaying more of the iconic images in its permanent collection into profit through licensing agreements.

The IMA has sold an aluminum "Love" paperweight by permission of artist Robert Indiana for 30 years, Product Development Manager Jennifer Geiger said. She thinks the museum could crank out many more products inspired by Indiana and other artists. "We have a fantastic collection of images."

With new artist-licensed products, the IMA hopes to boost its wholesale sales to other gift shops and retailers around the world.

Geiger is working similar angles for the Design Center. She plans to build relationships with Indianapolis architects and interior designers, who might order pieces of furniture for their customers through the museum.

So far, the Design Center is drawing a narrow pool of visitors, Sell said. Preliminary data from a new traffic-counter inside the museum's front door indicates a little more than half the museum's visitors go into the main gift shop. Less than half of that traffic goes on to the Design Center.

The IMA's investment in a separate, design-centered store is rare among general art museums. The Denver Art Museum, Miller's former employer, does not have a separate shop.

Without many role models, Sell said, she assembled merchandise for a customer base that's as diverse as the museum's audience. The top-selling items are books, which appeal to students, and small, more affordable objects, like a set of salt and pepper shakers.

"We're not going to have too many people walk in and want to spend $10,000, I don't think," she said.

Helmut Fortense, owner of Form + Function in Nora, said the market for modern designer furnishings is limited, and not only because they're expensive. Over the last 12 years, he's found his customers to be well-educated and widely traveled.

"It's a market that has to be cultivated," Fortense said. "That's one reason I welcome the opening of the [Design Center]. It also educates."

Indianapolis design aficionados welcome the museum's effort.

"Collectors are coming out of the woodwork, and calling up and offering us pieces," Miller said.

At this point, the design gallery offers a brief look at how styles have progressed in the post-World War II era. Miller is rapidly building the collection. He said he's acquired about 150 pieces while putting together the European exhibition.

New additions to the permanent collection include the Starck flyswatter and the Newson dish rack. That means museum-goers will see items on display in a gallery, then they'll see the same items —not a postcard or statuette — for sale downstairs.

That extra level of gratification is the idea behind the Design Center, Miller said. "They could go down to the center, actually see touch and feel the objects, and maybe take them home with them."

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