Exit through the gift shop

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.  

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.

gallery gift shop. Tall stuffed polar bear toy standing on a beach wearing a bowler hat.
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.

gallery gift shop. small cardboard model of 18th century ship
Model of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. Image: Australia’s Museum of the Sea.

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.

gallery gift shop. cardboard display box holding multiple small blue bags with 'fossil shark teeth' written on them
Bags of fossil shark teeth. Image: Sea Museum.

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.

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).

gallery gift shop. Image is a tall woman in a figure hugging red shiny dress.
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.

gallery gift shop. Large abstract rug with three horizontal branch designs, in yellow, red and blue.
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).

gallery gift shop. Glass cloud shapes in pastel colours.
Glass ornaments by Caslake and Pedler Glass. Image: AGSA.

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.

gallery gift shop. Three little ceramic birds with no wings, looking upwards and painted in stripes of blue, white, turquoise and yellow, and dotted with brown speckles.
Jenny Dawson’s ‘Blue Birds of Happiness’. Image: AGWA.

There’s also a special range of screen-printed cushion covers at the AGWA Design Store that are made in collaboration with Ikuntji Artists, the first art centre established for women of the Western Desert Art Movement. Ikuntji also managed the entire production process, resulting in beautiful and culturally resonant pieces celebrating Ikuntji’s inherent artistry ($150).

gallery gift shop. Three cushions in blue/black, white/beige and green/yellow/black all with abstract First Nations designs on them.
Screen-printed cushion covers made in collaboration with Ikuntji Artists. Image: AGWA.

It’s always hard to pick a favourite piece when there are so many wonderful items, but I am in love with the Miffy Night Lights. Made and designed in the Netherlands, the Mr Maria Miffy and Friends collection is a celebration of the innocence of childhood and the security of a loving home, and are a wonderful tribute to Dutch author Dick Bruna and the Miffy books that were first published back in the 1950s. At $600 for the big night light, it’s an indulgence that would become a much-loved family treasure.

gallery gift shop. A large sitting Miffy rabbit lamp with two dots for eyes and a cross for the nose/mouth. Its stomach glows with the light inside.
Miffy XL Lamp. Image: AGWA.
  • You can also buy some absolute treasures at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Like the other galleries, many of its most popular pieces celebrate key works from the permanent collection. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series (1826-33) is one of Katsushika Hokusai’s finest works. It is instantly recognisable and possibly the single most famous image in all Asian art. A wood-block print was gifted to the gallery in 1909. The cross-body belt bag featuring the blue and white image is a great buy at $49.95 and is an NGV Design Store exclusive.
  • Another favourite piece in the NGV collection is the late 17th century oil painting Flowerpiece, which has been in the collection since 1945. Amsterdam in the Golden Age saw the rise of an industry of exceptionally skilled specialist flower painters, many of whom were women, such as Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), to whom this piece was previously attributed. A dramatic detail of the work is captured on this decorative skateboard deck ($119.95).
  • Serious art aficionados may be tempted to snap up a delicate porcelain flower by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Embracing the tradition of Chinese porcelain production, this is a beautiful  porcelain peony. The flower is a repeated motif in his work, from his celebrated Sunflower Seeds, 2010, to a new installation for the NGV, Blossom 2015, comprising hundreds of delicate white flowers. Produced in a limited edition of just 99, and each one signed and numbered, this is a very special collectable with a $9000 price tag.
gallery gift shop. Small black boxes, one open showing a white porcelain peony inside.
Porcelain peony by Ai Weiwei. Image: NGV.

And if you want to look further afield, you can peruse the shops of many overseas galleries. One of my favourites, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has a good range online (though not the vast collection it has in store) and will ship to Australia for £30 ($56.90). This is per order, so if you get organised and buy a few things at once, that’s very affordable.

Many items are exclusive to the V&A and there are some wonderful stories behind them. The Fairtrade kitchen textiles, made from 100% recycled cotton, feature beautiful parrot and flower designs from 1911 by artist Kathleen Kersey. And there is a marvellous range of Art Deco inspired pieces including a silk scarf (£110) and a card wallet (£11) made in Scotland from 100% recycled leather. And, yes, there’s even something for just £2 with a lovely little arts and crafts pocket mirror.

gallery gift shop. An ornately decorated apron featuring flowers, fruits and parrots, in greens, reds and blues.
Fairtrade apron designed by Kathleen Kersey. Image: V&A.

Read: Around the world in seven galleries

Many gallery shops in the UK will ship to Australia, but most in the US will only ship to domestically and to Canada. Whether you’re an art collector, an art book lover, or just looking for a unique and special gift, buying from a gallery store makes a wonderful alternative to regular retail shopping. And you get the feel-good glow of knowing that every purchase is supporting a valued cultural institution.

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