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Exit through the gift shop

Dr Diana Carroll, Exit through the gift shop, ArtsHub, 22 May 2024

There’s an undeniable link between the art and the commercial in gallery stores. ArtsHub takes a look at some of the best buys from near and far.

The phrase “exit through the gift shop” became part of our cultural jargon with the 2010 work of ‘filmic graffiti’ about the street artist Banksy. Intended as a comment on the commercialisation of art, the ubiquitous phrase encapsulates the reality for art galleries and museums around the world: a successful gallery store is an essential element of the institution’s public engagement and makes a significant financial contribution towards keeping the doors open. And, yes, a sign saying “exit through the gift shop” can be spotted in almost all institutions from the Tate Modern in London to the recent touring Banksy blockbuster exhibition.

Nautical Royal Marine sextant. Image: Sea Museum.

A great gallery shop does many things: it is an inviting space for visitors, it enhances and extends the gallery experience, and it offers a prestige retail outlet for artists, designers and craftspeople to sell their works. Many Australian institutions take a leading role in championing works by First Nations artists.

Watson. Photo: Diana Carroll.

Two of my very favourite personal purchases came from gallery gift shops, both in Sydney. Watson, my bowler-hatted polar bear, was a display item from the Arctic World exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Watson stands as tall as me, so carrying him home on a busy 325 bus from the city was a lot of fun. At $350 he seemed expensive at the time, but he was so worth it because he makes me happy every single day. If there’s ever a fire at home, I will save Watson first.

Now rebranded as Australia’s Museum of the Sea, it’s fitting that many of the items on sale here talk to our maritime history. Models of Captain Cook’s Endeavour take pride of place, from a cute 3D model kit for children ($19.95) up to an impressive replica that would look good in the boardroom at $1245.95. You can also buy a fully-functioning nautical Royal Marine sextant. And just in case you’re not sure, a sextant is a ‘doubly reflecting navigation instrument that works by measuring the angular distance between two visible objects’. Buy yours now for just $889.

Model of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. Image: Australia’s Museum of the Sea.

At the other end of the price range, children in the family will be impressed by a bag of genuine fossil shark teeth for $7.85. These are apparently millions of years old, from the cretaceous period, and were uncovered in Morocco.

Bags of fossil shark teeth. Image: Sea Museum.

Like most gallery shops, the MCA Store at the Museum of Contemporary Art in The Rocks in Sydney has a well-curated selection of art books. Feeling Seen: The Photographs of Campbell Addy really caught my eye. This is a striking monograph of pictures by London-based Campbell Addy who is acknowledged as one of the most in-demand photographers of a generation. The foreword by British Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful OBE opens up the themes of the book, writing about the intersection of photography, race, beauty and representation ($99.99).

From ‘Feeling Seen: The Photographs of Campbell Addy’. Image: MCA.

There’s also a great selection of children’s items in the store with tiny treats for little visitors around the five-dollar mark. The cute cat “be curious” erasable gel pen is a fun item, for children and adults, at just $4.95. And I was delighted recently to purchase a vintage-style bird badge from the MCA Store. It is made of pressed tin and came on a little “Made in Japan” card. It’s so pretty and authentic that I went back and bought a few more, all for the tiny price of $2 each.

Watiya Tjuta tree rug by Mitjili Napurrula. Image: MCA.

If you’re shopping for something really special, the hand-made Watiya Tjuta tree rug by artist Mitjili Napurrula is stunning. These beautiful, unique rugs are a cross-cultural collaboration combining Aboriginal designs and traditional Kashmiri rug-making techniques ($780).

At the Art Gallery of South Australia you’ll find a beautiful range of glass ornaments by Caslake and Pedler Glass. This is an artistic partnership between glass blower Meg Caslake and ceramicist David Pedler. Priced from $35 to $90 these puffy little glass cloud shapes are just delightful. And at $180 there’s a beautiful range of scarves made by Adelaide artist Alice Lindstrom in collaboration with AGSA. It is these collaborations and gallery exclusives that make these shops so special. Colourful and whimsical fridge magnets by Adelaide artist Billie Justice Thomson are a very popular item ($38).

Over at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), I found more beautiful birds with the Blue Birds of Happiness by Fremantle ceramics artist Jenny Dawson. These are hand-painted and each bird has its own unique personality. They showcase Dawson’s expertise in sculptural works and her commitment to craftsmanship and design excellence. At $49, they’re a delight.

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