Behind the MFA Boston Catalog’s Demise

Dec 01, 2003 10:30 PM  By

Established as a private corporation in 2001, Museum Enterprise Partners (MEP) was meant to help fund the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston by running the museum’s gift business. But having lost $10 million during the past two years, MEP was quietly folded this past summer.

The last MFA Boston catalog mailed during the 2002 holiday season. At that time, the museum put MEP up for sale. But no buyers expressed an interest. So in June, MFA Boston bought out MEP’s six managers, cut staff, and scrapped the catalog and Website — the latter because “we had no way to do fulfillment,” says MFA Boston deputy director John Stanley. (A landing page for the Website says that the online store is “temporarily unavailable.”)

MFA Boston had launched the print catalog in 1970; it has had a museum gift store since the mid-1950s. The catalog’s income peaked at $3.5 million in 1990 and averaged $1.6 million in annual profit until 1997. The museum continues to operate a store on premises and three offsite shops — two in Boston, and an outlet in Sagamore, MA.

Part of MFA Boston’s plan had been to have MEP operate not only the MFA catalog/Internet business but other museums’ gift businesses as well. “The interest on the part of other museums was strong for such a service,” Stanley says, “but we could neither capitalize the start-up costs nor find a third-party backer willing to do so.”

Although MEP is down and pretty much out, not everyone involved with the company has given up hope. Joe Gajda, who ran the operation until it closed, has continued seeking financial backing to revamp the business to serve museums.

“The concept of the business, where professional management can provide services and operate the catalog and retail businesses for nonprofits, remains a very interesting concept, because running these operations is risky for nonprofits and can sometimes be a burden for them,” Gajda says. “So I’ve received calls from institutions about the concept of running their businesses.”