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The Sainsbury Centre shop: Paving the way for emerging artists and makers

“Our ethos should reflect the founding philosophy of the Centre, and the Sainsburys’ commitment to championing early career artists” says Rory Hill

Sainsbury Centre Shop with Rory Hill (right). Photo: Andy Crouch.

How would you describe the ethos of the Sainsbury Centre shop?

I like to think that the shop represents the wider nature of the Sainsbury Centre as a building, the collections we hold and the exhibitions we put on. Importantly I believe our ethos should reflect the founding philosophy of the Centre, and the Sainsburys’ commitment to championing early career artists or simply sharing with an audience beautiful objects from around the world.

Hasami Porcelain in the foreground, with ceramics by Lily Pearmain behind. Credit: Andy Crouch

The Sainsbury Centre shop is known for promoting the work of artists and makers, how do you find them and why do you think it is important to feature their products?

I would genuinely say the number one route we go down for discovering them is social media – primarily Instagram. It’s a great way of connecting with people who have chosen those platforms to begin promoting their work. Often a DM can be the start of a long partnership with us.

We are advantageously located in Norwich, and more broadly Norfolk, which often feels overrepresented when it comes to creatives, artists, makers and designers. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I couldn’t find them! Even looking further afield we’ve found incredibly talented London based artists like Lily Pearmain only to realise afterwards that she originally hails from Norfolk.

As retail, and especially independent retail, has become so global over the past couple of decades, it’s easy for any shop to stock unique products. In a building and Centre as remarkable as ours, I think it’s important that we push those boundaries and seek out truly special work.

We are in a fortunate position where we can commission artists and makers to produce bespoke stock for our shop. In 2018, we asked NUA graduate Adam Avery to illustrate a one-off print depicting his view of the Sainsbury Centre to commemorate the venue’s 40th anniversary. We’ve also worked with local jeweller Suzanne Seed, who designed a range inspired by Francis Bacon’s portraits of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury.

Rory Hill browsing in the Sainsbury Centre shop. Credit: Andy Crouch

Retail has become an integral part of the museum and gallery experience, how is the cultural sector evolving its retail offer to suit the needs of the customer?

The public want a memorable experience in a retail environment, rather than just a simple transaction. Museums and galleries have certainly been at the forefront of this recently.

We’ve seen a huge shift in the quality of what museum and gallery shops offer – when I was a child my main experiences would have been buying cheap plastic souvenirs and hastily printed postcards, often produced in large volumes with questionable manufacturers. We’re now seeing a move towards environmentally sustainable, high quality products and this has been a conscious decision to mirror the wants and needs of modern audiences.

Why is retail important for cultural venues and their customers?

The economic landscape that cultural organisations are part of has changed drastically during recent years and the emphasis has shifted greatly into becoming more and more self-sustaining, particularly when it comes to income. So, in the first instance retail is incredibly valuable from a practical perspective.

Secondly, retail is a massive part of our modern culture. Expectations across the world are unbelievably high when it comes to people’s experience of retail and they want it to feel as much of an event as the exhibition, concert or production that they are about to take part in.

And, most importantly, a retail space is often where people engage most with staff. Our visitors spend a lot of time in our shop after an exhibition, reflecting on what they have just experienced and feeding that back to our team. Often items for sale in the shop remind them of a specific moment from the exhibition and it invites small yet significant interactions.

Henry Moore and Bill Brandt products. Credit: Andy Crouch

The Sainsbury Centre has an ongoing programme of exhibitions, how do the products in the Sainsbury Centre shop reflect this?

The majority of our stock is made up of what we consider our ‘core lines’ – key suppliers and themes that stay with us year-round, reflecting our day-to-day visitors’ interests and expectations. However, for each exhibition we host, we will design and produce a bespoke set of products suited to the artists, objects or themes explored in the show.

We get to have a lot of fun with this aspect of our work, as we have a lot of freedom to collaborate with designers, artists and manufacturers to produce product exactly the way we want it, for our specific audiences. This can range anywhere from a series of prints reproducing vintage travel posters from Art Deco by the Sea, to one-off artist editions such as the items we’ve produced for our upcoming show, Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years.

Tell us about some of the new products in the Sainsbury Centre shop that you’re really excited about.

I’m really excited for people to see our Grayson Perry products up close; they’ve been incredibly popular in our online shop but sadly we haven’t been able to open our exhibition just yet and let our visitors have the full experience.

We’ve also started working with some talented new suppliers over the past few months, including a Japanese brand called Hasami Porcelain, who make beautiful homewares using traditional techniques that have been in use for over 400 years.

With independent artists and makers, we recently had a restock of some of our favourite pieces by Norwich based Peter Lubach, featuring some beautiful breastfeeding mother figurines to accompany our exhibition Bill Brandt | Henry Moore.

Books and catalogues in the Sainsbury Centre shop. Credit: Andy Crouch

There are a variety of books and catalogues available to purchase, some of which are edited by members of the Sainsbury Centre team, what publications such as these can we look forward to seeing soon?

Books have always been a significant part of retailing in cultural institutions and still rank as our best-selling ranges at the Centre. We’re very proud to publish titles in-house for nearly every exhibition that takes place – on subjects as varied as the history of the building to artists such as Elisabeth Frink and Francis Bacon.

We are lucky to have staff who are experts in their field and they often write, edit or contribute to these – in fact we have just published a new book, Henry Moore: Friendships and Legacies which is written by The Joyce and Michael Morris Chief Curator of Art, Tania Moore.

As with other products that we’ve talked about, we are pleased to say that we work with local designers, printers, proof-readers and copy-editors.

Museums and galleries have developed from simply being institutions that hold, conserve and display art and objects, to social spaces for engagement, entertainment, and learning. What do you think customers expect to experience when visiting a cultural venue?

I think that museums and galleries share the same challenges as retail and many other areas, notably that the public can access anything they want, anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Expectations are high and it’s not as simple as ‘build it and they will come’.

I believe that people want to completely immerse themselves in the places that they visit. For us this can be a unique retail space, catering outlets delivering high-quality and sustainable food and drink, such as our newly opened café The Terrace, engaging exhibitions, community focused learning programmes and most importantly knowledgeable staff.

With The Terrace, our aim has been to tackle several key issues from the outset – mainly around reducing our carbon footprint, working with the local economy and promoting high-quality, sustainable suppliers. Our food represents the best of the region, from Fen Farm Dairy, Flint Vineyard and Ampersand Brewing (who are all within 5 miles of each other in Suffolk) to Marsh Pig, Bread Source and Courtyard Cakery in Norfolk. Although our coffee isn’t local, it all comes from Square Mile Roasters who are industry leaders and pride themselves on ethical relationships with growers.

We’re seeing visitors who are well educated around the social or political aspects of everything they see and engage with – I think more and more we will see members of the public wanting to use their voice to feedback on these issues.

The Terrace cafe. Credit: Andy Crouch

What are your future aspirations for the Sainsbury Centre shop?

We’ve seen a substantial redevelopment of our online shop over the past 18 months and this will be a key area for us going forward. It gives us an opportunity to reach audiences that we might otherwise miss and develop exclusive products solely for them.

As always, I hope that the shop serves as a brilliant platform for independent makers, artists and designers, who are excited to see their work sharing a space with incredible art and objects.

We have an outstanding long-term exhibition programme and I can’t wait to collaborate with others to push what we do and strive to create new and innovative work to share with everyone.

Browse the Sainsbury Centre online shop here.

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