We have also avoided more traditional categories in planning for our upcoming 2021 Holiday Gift Guide. Rather than just the expected “Gifts for Him” or “Gifts for Her” collections, this year we are featuring product groupings around themes such as “Indigenous Spirit” and “Fair-Trade Living.” African Artists: From 1882 to Now (Phaidon Press, 2021) is a recommended holiday title that addresses artists normally considered outside the canon of Western art.
We take care to avoid the perception of exploiting a hot-button subject like racial justice in a cynical attempt at a cash grab. We chose not to package an African American History Month collection online in February, but instead decided to run a longer campaign featuring books on African American artists. Our intent was to communicate our support, but without seeming to make a hollow marketing gesture because the month demanded it.
It would be a disservice, however, to fail to recognize the essential fact that the Museum Stores are a key earned-revenue generator for the Museums, and that we do not function as a lending library or classroom extension, although we do have an educational role. Books, and all other merchandise categories, cannot simply exist as window dressing, but must perform well to justify their overall presence in the stores.
The Museums’ initiative also extends an opportunity to pause and reflect upon implicit bias in the buying process. The need for sales potentially offers a convenient cover to pass on books by women or artists of color in favor of books about high-profile artists whose universal name recognition offers an easy excuse to stock those books on our shelves instead. Of course, we will continue to offer monographs on important artists like Claude Monet or Richard Diebenkorn, but we are increasingly mindful of highlighting artists who have been previously excluded or underrepresented.
Some of the decision-making process is out of our control, since the publishing industry ultimately determines which artists receive monograph treatment and which books stay in print. Books about the work of key artists in the collections of the Legion of Honor, such as Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun and Anne Vallayer-Coster, may have been available at some point, but they have quickly lapsed out of print and become unavailable. Publishing trends directly impact which books we can offer in our stores. Currently, the publishing industry seems to be experiencing a moment when national issues of diversity and representation are at the forefront of interest, giving us a greater opportunity to select new relevant titles for our shelves.