Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balance, the ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, apparently no longer content with just being America’s largest and most famous art institution, has a rapidly growing licensing strategy to help it move into even more homes and the daily lives of people around the world.
The ongoing initiative, which seems to have kicked into high gear last year, has resulted in a significant expansion of its merchandise offerings and partnerships to help the institution generate revenues with fewer or no restrictions (as in, the funds can go towards projects that typically lack donors like needed upgrades to mechanical systems, conservation efforts, or increased accessibility). The aspirations for increased sales and brand recognition come amid a 20-year renovation of its campus that the museum said would inject “$2 billion in the local economy,” as well as rising expenses for operations and a deficit of $5.6 million for the end of the 2022 fiscal year.
The Met’s strategy is worth paying attention to because of the number and scope of the partnerships being rolled out, with a particular focus on “premium positioning” and reaching younger audiences worldwide. At least eight such partnerships have been launched in the last year alone.
Under the leadership of Lisa Silverman Meyers, former head of licensing and partnerships, and Josh Romm, head of global licensing and partnerships, the Met has rapidly expanded its e-commerce offerings and merchandise partnerships. There are now clothes through Pac Sun ($10 to $90), $140 leather boots and $210 backpacks through Dr. Martens, and Dunny vinyl toys with Kidrobot ($25 to $535).
While the Met began working with the brand extension licensing firm Beanstalk prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the explosion in the sales of residential homes, furnishings, and decor in 2020 guided many of the partnerships the institution sought out, according to the firm.
“Everybody was looking around their home, and upgrading and thinking of ways to make it more of a sanctuary and maybe spending a little bit more since they weren’t traveling,” Beanstalk’s vice president of brand partnerships Linda Morgenstern told ARTnews by phone in March.
These licensing agreements include luxury linens with Ann Gish, wall decor through Wendover Art Group, wall coverings and textiles through Scalamandre, and the recently launched partnership with Samsung Electronics. Subscribers to the company’s Art Store who own a Samsung Frame TV can now access high-resolution images of 38 works from the museum’s collection. (A single-user subscription runs $4.99/month or $49.90/year, on top of the $600 to $3,400 cost of the TV.)
The targeting of high-net worth individuals is most evident in the seven pieces from the Amish furniture company Abner Henry. The limited-edition items, which range in price from $54,000 to $144,000 and were in development for almost three years, take direct design inspiration from seven notable works of art in the Met’s collection.
“Historically, we probably spend six to eight months in developing new pieces,” Abner Henry CEO Ernest Hershberger told ARTnews in the days leading up to the partnership’s official launch in late March. “But then after a while, as we kept moving through the process, the whole stewardship perspective kicked in, and there was no way I was going to back out of it. I was not going to disappoint the Met.”
Hershberger said his company developed new techniques specifically for the limited-edition partnership, such as the infusion of 24-carat gold into two walnut nesting tables inspired by Édouard Manet’s painting The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil (1874). For the Abner Henry agreement, Hershberger said the long-term licensing contract means the Met gets a commission of every piece that gets sold.
Overall information about the revenues generated by licensing agreements and e-commerce partnerships was not disclosed by the Met. In a review of the institution’s unaudited annual financial report for fiscal 2022, retail and other auxiliary activities (which include restaurant sales) total $45.6 million or 13.9 percent of overall revenues. This amount and slice is close to double what the museum reported for fiscal 2021, when retail and other auxiliary activities generated $24.6 million in sales or 8.9 percent of the Met’s overall revenues.
While the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Store is cited as an example of an art institution has successfully created a separate consumer brand, it’s worth noting that the Victoria and Albert Museum has more than 85 partnerships, and the Louvre has also enthusiastically expanded its brand partnerships and e-commerce agreements. In 2021, the French art museum struck deals with DS Automobiles, Airbnb, Swatch, Uniqlo, home furnishing retailer Maison Sarah Lavoine and the Hong Kong-based tech accessory company Casetify. The museum is also a featured partner of the Samsung Art Store.
Even during the first year of the pandemic, the Louvre’s brand partnerships reportedly generated €4.5 million in 2020, compared with €2.7 million in 2019, according to Le Monde.
Romm, the Met’s head of global licensing and partnerships, said he believes that licensing serves as a entry vehicle for people interested in art to learn more while helping fund the museum’s work, noting how the Frame partnership with Samsung includes curatorial information on each of the works.
But while licensing partners have access to nearly 1,000 cleared items in the Met’s collection across its departments, Romm is well aware there has been a tendency for many of them to choose the same artists and works, such as George Seurat’s Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), (1887-88), Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as The Great Wave.
“There really is a great deal of variety and we often want our curators to get equal coverage,” Romm told ARTnews during a press tour on September 13. “We don’t force them into the greatest hits but we try to strike a balance. The world of consumers, even people who like art, gravitate to impressions, so our trick is how do you get balance?”
If everyone wants The Great Wave on their TV, their Doc Martens, and their toys, well then why should the Met refuse them?
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Met’s former head of licensing and partnerships. She is Lisa Silverman Meyers, not Lisa Silver Meyers.