Could gift sales be Philly museums’ last best hope for a revenue bump in this devastating year?

It has not been the greatest year for the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall.

First came bankruptcy, followed by pandemic, layoffs, and temporary closure. But then President Trump brought forth a gift.

Lauding national parks at a White House event this summer, Trump said the eyes of young Americans “widen in amazement” when “they gaze upon Yo Semites, Yo Seminite’s towering sequoias.”

The internet went wild over the Yosemite National Park gaffe. And Kristen Kreider, the museum’s retail director, seized the moment. Since 2011, the museum had stocked a camping tee shirt emblazoned with “Yo Semite” beneath a couple of pine trees.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be crazy,’” Kreider recalled. It was.

“People were tweeting it, Washington correspondents were tweeting it, White House correspondents, a New York Times columnist, the Lincoln Project tweeted it. It just gathered so much momentum and we were the only place you could get it.”

Within a day or two, 6,000 shirts were out the door. The museum added a Philadelphia source for printing them.

“The printing company had to bring back a bunch of furloughed employees,” said Kreider. “It was really kind of a great thing.”

Some shelter in the storm

Although the Jewish museum’s wild viral moment is unique, retail sales — largely online — have proven to be a relatively sturdy source of revenue for most pandemic-burdened museums.

Those institutions that have reopened following coronavirus shutdowns (the Jewish museum has not), report retail as something of a bright spot. Meanwhile, with visitors nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, the internet has made it possible for retail to prop up sagging revenue, leading institutions to beef up their websites.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is now putting the finishing touches on a new pop-up retail shop, located in the special exhibition galleries off the Great Stair Hall, to open beginning this Friday and into the middle of January.

The work of Philadelphia-based artists will be offered in the new space to help support those who are struggling, said Christine Doobinin, who heads museum retail operations. The museum has also revamped its website in an effort to boost online sales.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, an annual fundraiser independently operated by the Women’s Committee of the museum, will go completely virtual this year, a first. The Craft Show, running Friday through Sunday, features the work of 150 artists along with talks and demonstrations.

In the past, the show has raised as much as $400,000 in a year for museum programs and craft acquisitions. Over 43 years, it has raised $13.4 million. What are the expectations for the virtual event?

“In a year that is like no other, we don’t know exactly what to expect,” said Nancy O’Meara, PMA Craft Show manager, although their hope is to expand the audience “through being accessible to anyone across the country.”

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