Museum Stores Are Secretly the Best Places to Buy Gifts—Here’s Why

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SFMOMA Museum Store (Don Ross)

Does the thought of finding well-designed, locally relevant and thoughtful gifts for your loved ones fill you with dread? Never fear: the anxiety of lackluster gift-giving can be eradicated by real experts in the world, people who’ve already done the hard work of finding all that good stuff.

They are the managers, retail directors, buyers and distinguished employees of Bay Area museum stores... and they’re here to help. We asked representatives from five Bay Area arts institutions for their personal gift recommendations; all you have to worry about now is wrapping.

Ceramics and Food to Fill Them

Contemporary Jewish Museum

A cooking zine in a wooden box sits to the right of a glass vase of flowers on a white counter.
'Nourish Co. All Day: A Mini Cookbook' (Courtesy of Nourish Co.)

Gravity Goldberg, director of public programs and visitor experience at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, had an especially hard time picking just one item.

“This fall we’ve been having a series of ceramic pop-ups in conjunction with our Annabeth Rosen exhibition, so we’ve been working each month with a different, mostly local ceramics artist,” Goldberg says. She’s fallen in love with a number of items, like Sarah Kersten’s fermentation jar and Cassie Brown’s Bauhaus-esque take on a black vase.

But for a lower price point, Goldberg recommends a mini-cookbook zine by Nourish Co. ($15), a lifestyle brand run by San Francisco-based Kristin Eriko Posner, who is Japanese American and Jewish.

“It’s full of recipes that are Japanese-Jewish. She does a Jewish donburi, it’s fun! It’s a cute little Hanukkah stocking stuffer,” Goldberg says.

Gifts for Hosting and Cooking

Asian Art Museum

Japanese salty plums in two jars and on a plate with chopsticks.
Umeboshi savory plum pickles by Yumé Boshi. (Courtesy of Yumé Boshi)

With the exhibition schedule a bit different from years past, as the Asian Art Museum undergoes a major expansion project, Director of Retail Françoise Sengens decided the organizing principle of this year’s winter display would be—quite simply—food.

“Whatever your holidays are, there is always a big meal that people share with family and friends. So I investigated artisans and small companies, mostly Asian American, in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” she says. “We decided to bring in a lot of products, gourmet food and gifts for hosting and cooking.”

The centerpiece of the store is a display of Jade Chocolates ($7.95–$34.95), a San Francisco-based company that makes artisan chocolates blended with teas, spices and tropical fruits—all flavors from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

But Sengens also recommends a range of tasty treats made by Oakland-based food company Yumé Boshi ($19.95–$22.95). Their small-batch Japanese preserves are made using traditional methods, and simple, locally sourced ingredients. Look for their plum syrup (great in cocktails), jars of Japanese salty plums and a mandarinquat and ume plum marmalade.

‘Black is Beautiful’ in Past and Present Publications

Museum of the African Diaspora

A book cover and a magazine cover.
'Black is Beautiful' exhibition catalog and the "Sound Issue" of 'Umber Magazine.' (Courtesy of MoAD)

When the Museum of the African Diaspora opens Black is Beautiful on Dec. 4, an exhibition of Kwame Brathewaite’s photography, Visitor Experience Manager Nia McAllister thinks you’re going to want to bring part of the show home with you.

This key figure in the second Harlem Renaissance co-founded the African Jazz Arts Society Studios and Grandassa Models, a modeling agency for black women. His powerful images of black men and women with natural hair and clothes celebrating their African roots illustrated the movement that gives the show its name. A catalog ($40) featuring all of the above can be found in MoAD’s small but mighty museum store.

If you’re looking for something a bit more rooted in Bay Area artistic production, McAllister has that covered too. “Something we try to feature in the bookstore at MoAD is local black artists and black creatives,” she says, suggesting an Oakland-based publication called Umber Magazine.

“It’s collectively owned by three people of color and it features the visual arts and culture of black and brown people,” McAllister explains. The museum stocks both the magazine’s luxurious “Sound Issue” ($25) and their latest zine, an eight-page large-format publication Umber describes as “a visual tactile mixtape” ($10).

An Introduction to Electronic Music

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A white plastic device covered in blue, red and green knobs and levers.
Blipblox, "a real synth made for kids," by Playtime Engineering. (Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Camille Verboort, a buyer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art store, spotted her recommendation earlier this year at a toy fair. “I saw this product, and it stopped me in my tracks,” she remembers. The Blipblox ($189) is a synthesizer for children ages three and up, a technically complicated but easy-to-use instrument that kids can experiment with and grow into, eventually plugging into computers to create their own recorded music.

Made by the Potrero Hill-based company Playtime Engineering, Verboort saw in the Blipblox not just a fun and educational product, but something that expanded on the museum’s holdings, specifically Brian Eno’s ambient music installations. “Part of my job is to bring in products that relate to our collection and the exhibitions we have, to further educate people about the artists we feature in the museum,” Verboort explains.

The Blipblox, along with a selection of other noise-making art-related toys, are available in SFMOMA’s store in what Verboort calls “the family jam band” section.

Colors and Concoctions

Creative Growth Art Center

A coloring book cover and four tall clear glasses with intricate black line drawings on them.
A Creative Growth coloring book and Dinah Simpson's detailed highball glasses. (Courtesy of Creative Growth)

Creative Growth, a nonprofit founded in 1974, provides artists with disabilities professional studio space, exhibitions and representation. And because they work with over 150 artists, Megan Mirro, the organization’s communications and partnerships associate, has a recommendation that showcases the range of practices they support—and invites participation. The Creative Growth coloring book ($15) is collection of black-and-white drawings by 39 studio artists, primed and ready for colorful collaboration.

For someone more interested in mixing drinks than watercolors, Mirro recommends a set of four highball glasses featuring designs by artist Dinah Shapiro ($40). “We chose to design a glass with her because she’s an artist who concocts a lot of her own drink combinations here in the studio,” Mirro explains. “She likes to mix iced tea with yogurts and other types of juices.”

The four glasses are a retrospective of sorts—each one comes from a different period of work in the studio, where Shapiro has been making art since 1983.

If you’d like to see far more work from the artists at Creative Growth, stop by their holiday studio sale Dec. 6, 2019–Jan. 17, 2020, where a wide variety of textiles, paintings, drawings and ceramics are available for purchase. “It’s one of the best introductions to our space,” Mirro says. “You can find artwork from the ’70s when we started, or a brand new, hot-off-the-kiln ceramics piece.”