While many American art museums are just starting to craft a presence on Chinese social media, their European competitors have already taken major steps to get China’s art lovers inside their exhibitions—while also making it easier than ever for them to buy museum souvenirs once they get there.

national gallery london

European museums, such as the National Gallery of Art in London, have been actively courting Chinese tourists. Courtesy photo

London’s National Gallery of Art (NGA) is an example. Founded in 1824, the NGA is the fourth most visited art museum in the world (after the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and it houses some of the greatest works in the history of Western art, from Leonardo da Vinci’s circa-1474 “Ginevra de Benci” to Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Lavender Mist.”

The museum, like many in the West, has witnessed a sharp rise in Chinese tourists in recent years, and, as a result, last summer launched a marketing campaign in Shanghai. Meanwhile, it recognized something else: that those tourists were having a hard time spending the money they wanted to in the museum.

The museum’s first marketing campaign in China, in the Shanghai Metro, was seen by 6 million people

“We noticed an increase in Chinese visitors trying to use their China UnionPay cards in our shops, and we tried to find a way to accept those cards,” said Head of IT at National Gallery Company (the trade wing of the National Gallery of Art) Richard Cross. “Our card system didn’t accept them, and we were aware we were losing out on sales because of it… in researching Chinese payments, we found that more people in China used Alipay but didn’t expect to be able to use it in the U.K. It then made sense for us to have a way to accept Alipay.”

national gallery shop

London’s National Gallery of Art has increased sales since it began accepting Alipay. Courtesy photo

This was good timing. Not only has in-store overseas Alipay use increased over the past year, so has total spending, with the average spending per user increasing 43 percent from $303 (RMB 2,073) in the summer of 2017 to $432 (RMB 2,955) this last summer.

It wasn’t easy setting up the museum’s page on Alipay, Cross said, but once they’d perfected the app, sales began to steadily roll in. And now that the National Gallery was accepting payments on site, the museum decided that it could branch out a little—perhaps even into China itself.

This summer, “we had our first marketing campaign in the Shanghai Metro, which saw a corridor being taken over by National Gallery images and related props,” said buying and brand licensing director at National Gallery Company Judith Mather about the museum’s first venture into the market. “This was seen by approximately 6 million commuters. There was also an opportunity to purchase limited-edition National Gallery metro cards and merchandise through QR codes and WeChat.”

national gallery london

The museum is still looking at way to better serve Chinese visitors. Courtesy photo

The NGA won’t disclose totals, but does say they’ve seen strong sales in China of their tote bags, postcards, scarves/socks, prints, and accessories—mostly featuring images of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (art-historical eras that Chinese, and many other, art lovers favor).

The National Gallery says sales in China have been strong, particularly for products featuring Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art

The museum is waiting for more data to show them exactly how much resources to put into their sales efforts and Alipay program in the future, not to mention other possible initiatives in China.

“We continue to look at alternative payment methods, although we will only adopt those that would generate a significant number of transactions,” said Cross. “Our retail staff are good at feeding back information about payment methods customers would like to use, so we use that information for what we need to be investigating.”

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Museums & Exhibitions