Thursday, September 17, 2009

CultureLabel.com: An old idea, freshly minted


Some of the most interesting e-commerce ventures currently emerging in the culture sector are arriving to the sort of media fanfare usually reserved for truly new and original ideas. But how innovative are these ventures?

Take, for example, CultureLabel.com, a new website that aggregates designer objects, limited edition prints, multiples and other cultural merchandise from a host of UK museums, galleries and other cultural institutions, making them available via an online shopping basket, à la Amazon.

The site is the brainchild of a group of young marketing wizards and brand-savvy entrepreneurs and is headed up by David Gilbert, a trustee and chair of the Contemporary Arts Society, and a board director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Arts Council.

Gilbert, (right) and his team believe their online retail culture store can create an additional 30 percent revenue for cash-strapped museums and galleries.

The 60-odd partners already signed up include key national museums and galleries such as Tate, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy, plus the National Trust and English Heritage. Then there's all those contemporary galleries like the Baltic in Gateshead and doubtless the Arts Council's 'string of pearls' will follow — Towner in Eastbourne, the De La Warr in Bexhill, Turner Contemporary in Margate, and Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire.

It's not enough to open a fancy David Chipperfield-designed museum; these shiny new white cubes need to generate revenues too. As David Gilbert himself has said, "It’s important to understand that you don’t have to rely on public funding for growth." That has been true for decades, but every now and again it's important to state the bleeding obvious.

Culture Label is a brilliant thing and very welcome, but its core idea isn't as innovative and original as it might seem.

Back in 2000, Philadelphia-based entrepreneur Richard B. Price was stacking up the air-miles shuttling around the world trying to generate capital funding for the MuseumNetwork.com.

Aware of the revenue crisis in the museum sector (a crisis that even now, ten years on, is only deepening) I felt certain Price would succeed in winning the required investment for his innovative online museum hub. However, like many other great business ideas that emerged prior to the dotcom slide, MuseumNetwork proved to be ahead of its time. Museums (many at that time not even online), just didn't get it. Cultural entrepreneurism was in its infancy too.

But since then, online retail has developed in leaps and bounds, giving birth to a global army of culture shoppers. And museums have started to wake up to those opportunities.

Part of the MuseumNetwork plan was to aggregate museum merchandise on a single website to offer global access to cultural products and thereby create new revenue streams for museums. But its business plan comprised a whole lot more besides a big online culture shop. The core idea was to create the conditions and systems that would enable museums to share marketing and other administrative costs and benefit from economies of scale. This would still be a welcome thing were it to happen. Ultimately it would also have created an exchange forum for deaccessioning, which continues to test the ingenuity and ethical charters of museums across Europe and North America.

In the event, diversity of ambition may have been MuseumNetwork's Achilles heel, just as CultureLabel's niche focus is its main strength. Here, individual museum brands are subsumed into an overarching Amazonian retail environment where cultural 'products' speak for themselves rather than for the institution with which they may have been originally associated. In other words, what might have looked like a piece of local kitsch when encountered in the real-world museum shop, could take on a fresh significance in this easy-click retail space alongside other designed objects of desire.

CultureLabel is basically the high-fallutin' cultural equivalent of 'I Want One Of Those.com'. But what's wrong with that? If it puts pounds in museums' pockets and alleviates the strain on operating budgets and thereby helps them stay open, then all well and good.

Just don't tell me it's a new idea.

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