Pamela Kelly with Shelley Thompson

Translating Museum Treasures Into Products


As the founder and director of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s licensing program, Pamela Kelly helps to translate treasures from the collection into products that are sold across the country.  El Palacio asked her to tell us more about how the program operates, and about what makes New Mexico collections attractive to manufacturers nationwide.

Thompson: What was your background before you started the licensing program. And how did the licensing program begin?

Kelly: The program was born from a combination of life history and work experience. I am a third-generation Santa Fean who gained a unique appreciation of our state and its history by attending cultural events and visiting our museums. After I completed my M.B.A., I was fortunate to work for two innovative companies whose mission respected and supported ethnic communities and their environments. My first job was with the UK-based company The Body Shop. Its founder, Anita Roddick, hired me to research plants and herbs of New Mexico as potential product ingredients. We developed a line of hair and skin care products using blue corn purchased from Santa Clara Pueblo and a shampoo using yerba de la negrita from a supplier in Arizona. This success secured me a full-time position with the company, which further taught me to appreciate the value traditional practices can bring to new markets.

My next job was with Smith & Hawken, running their expanding retail operation. Then I represented several major accessory and home décor manufacturers, and developed product for several of San Francisco’s home décor companies—Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus, Banana Republic, and Chambers. Having worked with these international companies, I started to think of home and what my skills sets could offer my community and conceived the licensing program to promote the museums’ collections.

Thompson: What are the goals of the licensing program?

Kelly: The goals are the same as those of the foundation: to promote and support the institutions that comprise the Museum of New Mexico. The success can be judged on two fronts: financial and promotional. Since the program’s inception in 1998, it has contributed close to a million dollars to the museum. And our efforts have generated countless articles about the museums and their collections in newspapers and magazines across the country.

Thompson: How do you go about interesting a manufacturer in the program?

Kelly: The business of securing new licenses involves five steps: (1) researching a given market (rugs, furniture, lighting, fabric, paper goods, etc.) to determine the major players; (2) attending trade shows to see manufacturers’ products and meet the principals; (3) reviewing the museum collections to identify objects and/or designs that might fit into a given manufacturer’s product look; (4) developing a product presentation using museum-based objects; and (5) if I do a good job on these tasks and manage to pique a manufacturer’s interest, then we invite them to the museum to tour the collections. When we enter into a partnership, we sign a license, design product for curatorial review, manufacture the products, introduce and promote them at appropriate trade shows, and finally enjoy the receipt of royalties on sales of the products.

Thompson: Tell us about a favorite project that you have worked on.

Kelly: In the summer of 2002 we approached Marshall Field’s, the iconic Chicago-based department store, with the idea of developing an exclusive home décor collection for their stores. With their support, we identified seven partner manufacturers to license designs from the museums and develop product.

In April 2003 we launched a 500-piece collection consisting of upholstered and wood furniture, rugs, fabrics, bedding, lighting, and accessories inspired by MNM objects and textiles. In building this collection, we chose traditional furniture pieces and updated them for a modern audience. We also did what comes naturally to New Mexicans: we layered on ethnic influences through textiles, accent furniture pieces, and decorative accessories. Traditions Made Modern®—the name we chose to market the products under—was a huge success, generating significant revenues and great publicity for the museum.

The two best-selling pieces were the Manderfield Bed and the Shonnard Chair, named for their original owners. Philadelphia-born William Manderfield traveled west on the Santa Fe Trail with the ornate Victorian bed strapped to his covered wagon. Eugenie Shonnard, the New York–born, Paris-trained sculptress, came to New Mexico in the late 1920s and brought with her some wonderful European furniture.

Thompson: What is the value of the MNM brand and how does the licensing program contribute to and/or support our brand attributes?

Kelly: Branding is as critical to the program’s success as the quality of products we offer. People need to know that what you offer is both unique and of quality. The challenge and pleasure I have with our licensing program is that we actually have five brands: the Museum of New Mexico and the four individual museums. As such, depending on my targeted licensee, I will promote one or all.

Thompson: How do New Mexico’s unique history and culture make a program like this possible?

Kelly: Despite what some in the general public might believe, New Mexico has never been solely about cowboys, Indians, and outlaws. It has also been about explorers, artists, and traders who brought cultural and design influences from Europe, Spain, Mexico, Latin America, and Asia into this place of beautiful landscapes and interesting Native communities. As a result, New Mexico has long stood at the crossroads of culture, creating and defining yet a new aesthetic paradigm that mixes the Old World with the New World. It’s a very appealing concept to modern designers and retail establishments who respond to consumers’ desire to bring meaning, beauty, and continuity into their homes.

Today, as people across the country have become more casual and nomadic, moving and living in more than one city, design rules have relaxed, and furniture design and interior decoration have shifted from the “suited collection” of pieces that match, to a new trend, one focused more on how people actually live. Many people inherit a nice family piece or two and over time add other pieces bought at antique stores or on trips, or that round out a collection. The result is a more eclectic home. New Mexicans long ago perfected that eclectic look. I trace this effortless style and confidence to the historic trade routes that crisscrossed New Mexico (Native trade in and around Chaco, the Camino Real, Santa Fe Trail, the AT&SF Railroad, and even Route 66), delivering goods from around the world that residents here simply added to Native and Spanish traditional pieces.

Thompson: How did the Old World and the New come together in New Mexico to create a unique style?

Kelly: New Mexico’s unique style is a blending of European style and Native design motifs translated initially with relatively simple tools. The result: a beguiling, rustic interpretation of European design mixed and melded with traditional Native American motifs. Trade goods delivered to Santa Fe from Mexico on the Camino Real were highly refined and representative of European, Mexican, and Asian design traditions. Native design was equally refined and elegant, but manifested itself in a more spare and highly graphic manner. Because this combination of design traditions was initially interpreted or made real by artisans using relatively simple tools, a whole new style emerged—one rooted in a European design tradition, translated through Native eyes, and/or made manifest by local artisans.

Thompson: Why do our collections appeal to manufacturers? What do they come here to find?

Kelly: West of the Mississippi, the collections of the four museums are unrivaled in the breadth and depth of their offerings. The 23,000-piece textile collection at the Museum of International Folk Art is considered one of the top ten ethnic collections in the world. The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s Native textile, ceramic, and basketry collections offer a wealth of bold and graphic pattern inspiration to contemporary designers. Countless museums and books feature historic English or French furniture, but very few feature the unique blend of European, Mexican, and Native design found in the furniture collections at the New Mexico History Museum and MOIFA. Our furniture licensees find inspiration not just in the overall silhouette of a piece, but also in the hardware, the manner of construction, or the patina of aged wood.

Thompson: Many museums sell reproductions of objects in their collections, but that is not the focus of your program. Why not?

Kelly: MNM represents the art, culture, and history of the state, and many of the objects in our collections represent living and thriving traditions. Out of respect for the fact that so many New Mexicans still make their living creating and selling work based upon these traditions, we do not sell reproductions. The shop buyers can get the “real thing” from local artists.

Thompson: How do our collections provide inspiration for products that appeal to contemporary buyers?

Kelly: Contemporary design is about clean lines, bold graphics, and elegant simplicity. Interestingly, our best resource of such design is found at MIAC in the basketry, textile, and ceramic collections. Several manufacturers/licensees have developed beautiful contemporary objects from MIAC pieces. Nambé developed a series of leaded glass vases and metal alloy platters inspired by Pueblo pottery and basketry. Designtex—a textile and wall-covering manufacturer selling to the commercial market—developed a gorgeous and sophisticated collection called Shelter. And West Elm—a division of Williams-Sonoma that sells furniture, rugs, lighting, and bedding—has developed a series of contemporary wool rugs inspired by basketry and textile designs at MIAC.

Thompson: Is there some object or collection that you just adore and keep hoping a manufacturer will fall in love with, though the match has not yet been made?

Kelly: The ethnic dress collection at MOIFA is fantastic. My dream would be to partner with a haute couture designer to develop a fashion collection. Can’t you just see it? Models of all races walking down a Paris runway, wearing stunning fashions inspired by clothing from Palestine, Macedonia, Guatemala, India, and New Mexico? It’s just one dimension of what we have to offer, and why I continue to love my job. The opportunities are endless.

Shelley Thompson is the director of marketing and outreach for the Museum Resources Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. She interviewed Nicolasa Chávez for the winter 2012 issue of El Palacio.