Over the past year, Chinese museums have become obsessed with a new multimillion-dollar industry known as “wenchuang”. It’s a craze for creative, culturally-connected products that has inspired the Palace Museum to collaborate on specialty cookies with Oreo and the Dunhuang Museum to launch a range of cosmetics with skincare brand Pechoin. Wenchuang might seem like a thoroughly contemporary preoccupation, but the phenomenon can be traced back to Andy Warhol, the American iconoclast known for deconstructing the boundaries between art and commerce. And a casual browse of the Campbell Soup candles and Marilyn Monroe notepads on sale at the Art Institute of Chicago’s gift shop during its largest Warhol retrospective in 30 years proves as much.
Reinvigorating gift shop offerings has been a priority for both public and private Chinese museums, many of which have emulated the MoMA Design Store’s blueprint for success by selling quirky collectibles and artist-IP goods. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Warhol merchandise will surely appeal to the growing number of Chinese tourists that visit the Midwestern city each year (approximately 1.2 million in 2018), but that hasn’t stopped the museum from implementing a range of methods they hope will attract even more travelers.
“Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” spans the prolific artist’s career through more than 400 artworks, including some rarely-screened films and recently unearthed multimedia works. In addition to creating a Warhol banner for its Weibo account, the museum promoted the exhibition on its WeChat account with a text explaining the relevance of Warhol to contemporary society by highlighting “the ways that he anticipated the issues, effects, and pace of our current digital age.”
Yet the AIC’s smartest China-related maneuver was to invite the help of local Chinese KOL Yoyo (her Weibo handle is Lovinyoyo) to promote this seminal exhibition. With more than 380,000 Weibo followers and a strong presence on WeChat, Instagram, and Youtube, Yoyo will help bring massive attention from her predominantly young and fashion-conscious fans to the show. These efforts, alongside the AIC’s proven avenue of selling tickets through Chicago tour operators that focus on the Chinese market, have worked exceptionally well for the museum.
For other cultural institutions hoping to gain traction with today’s wave of Chinese museum-going tourists, the AIC offers a strong model for success by combining gift shop cool with social media savvy — all while harnessing the powerful reach of Chinese tour operators and KOLs.
The Exhibition will run until January 26, 2020.