museums&MORE Winter 2011
Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts

Creating a “test” store during a big city-wide event gets them ready for new store launch

The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts (UICA) in Grand Rapids, Mich. didn’t have a retail store in their building, but they did have plans for one in a new location later that year. They also had an international art competition – ArtPrize – coming to their town, an empty café space in their current location, a variety of items created by local artists and dozens of volunteers.

The result? A temporary store that drew in more than 60,000 people during the two-and-a-half week-long ArtPrize event, giving the UICA a chance to take advantage of the large crowds to not only test out products, but also to raise revenue for UICA’s programs.

“Having a store is new to us,” said Phil Meade, UICA public relations manager. “We were creating products for the store in preparation for the move to our new building where we will have a retail store space. To test out the products, we decided to create a store in our current building to open during ArtPrize.”

The UICA had a café space in their current building that was mostly used for meetings, but that was at an ideal retail location – on the corner of the building and surrounded by windows. This space already had a counter in it, so they took out the conference table and converted it to a store. To construct the store, Steelcase – a locally-based global leader in the office furniture industry-loaned them some shelving units for the windows, and there was already shelving in the café.

“We had a dedicated committee of volunteers who had retail experience help us display the products and organize everything for easy use,” Meade said. “We displayed the products on the shelves and some small tables in the center of the room and displayed the shirts above the counter.”

They had about 75 volunteers to help throughout the two-and-a-half week event, with two or three people in the store at all times during ArtPrize. They quickly realized they needed very clear examples of the products and very clear pricing, tweaking some of the displays to make sure everyone could understand the prices and sizing.

Because part of UICA’s mission is to “Advance the careers and the creative processes of innovative emerging and mid-career artists,” this is reflected in the merchandise. They asked local artists, young artists in their youth program and exhibiting artists to create unique products for the store. Meade said it was basically a way to support and feature the work of local and emerging artists, as well as offer one-of-a-kind and hand-made products in the store.

“What makes it unique is that it features specially made products from our youth program and from local artists,” Meade said. “Our youth program created ceramic items and dolls for ArtPrize and the money will go back into that innovative program. We also have a number of UICA brand products, such as track jackets, T-shirts, water bottles, temporary tattoos, coloring books, pins, magnets and note cards.”

By featuring limited-edition products made by local artists, they hope that people will be interested in supporting local artists and getting one-of-a-kind products. Also, because these products will be limited edition, they will constantly be getting new artists to create T-shirt designs or other items.

“UICA has a lot of connections with local artists already,” Meade said. “For 22 years now we have had an event called Holiday Artists’ Market. Each year we have 50 local artists display their work in booths and it’s a great free event for people to shop at for the holidays. From events like this we have a number of artists that we can work with.”

They also plan on having an artist-in-residence program, where artists stay in Grand Rapids and work on their art at UICA. There will be at least four artists-in-residences each year and Meade predicts they will also have these artists create products for the store.
Meade recommends planning ahead and making sure there are a variety of products available, as the main thing they learned from this trial experience is what sells well and what doesn’t.

“The things that haven’t sold very well are our water bottles and some of the T-shirts, but we’ve sold a lot of dolls, coloring books and tote bags,” Meade said. “I would also recommend purchasing smaller amounts of products and seeing what sells the best. When you are opening a store for the first time, you definitely do not want to purchase too many of one kind of product without knowing if it will sell well.”

The launch of the temporary store during such a high-traffic event was a great way for them to figure that out, along with raising funds and awareness for the UICA. An increased interest in local art and the opportunity to take a piece of the experience home?

Truly an art prize for all those involved.

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

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