When Nora Weiser curated a Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago, a colleague gave her a striking banner promoting the show that had hung from one of Chicago's streetlight poles. Soon, visitors to Weiser's home were asking where they could get similar banners from their favorite exhibitions. Surely the sprawling 2 1/2-foot-by-8-foot panels would dress up a living room wall or be ideal for a big foyer. The answer Weiser had to give: Sorry, but they just don't sell them.
Now they do, thanks to Weiser and her husband, Nicolas. In May, 2005, they started selling vinyl banners from exhibits at 18 museums on their Web site, betterwall.com. The banners typically run from $300 to $800 and feature subjects from pre-Incan figures to geishas and Toulouse-Lautrecs. After flapping in the breeze in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, or elsewhere, the limited-edition banners have been sent, scrubbed and ready for hanging, to hundreds of collectors. "We have passionate customers," says Nicolas, 37. That enabled their business to bring in just over $100,000 in sales in the first 10 months.
Betterwall.com brings together the diverse skills of Nicolas and Nora, 36, who first met as undergrads at Washington University in St. Louis. Nora's art background includes a five-year stint at the Museum Store Assn., a trade group where she learned the complex copyright rules governing images on banners. Nicolas, a onetime environmental consultant, learned about entrepreneurship when he ran MuchoInfo, a Web-based market research outfit that collapsed in 2002.
The Weisers and their three employees are well attuned to their customers' needs. Art lovers like nothing more than impressive and unique pieces; one customer is even redesigning part of her home around her banners. And museums face the problem of disposing of the hardy vinyl material. Tossed in the trash, the weatherproof banners could sit in a landfill for 500 years, says Nora.
First, the Weisers clear copyright issues. Then they pay shipping fees for the museums, which send the banners to their Denver facility to be cleaned and pressed. Those that can't be rehabilitated are recycled into floor tiles or other vinyl products. Then the Weisers give back a portion of each sale to the museums. While the museums won't get rich off that money, "we're thrilled," says Shannon Dean, marketing manager for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, adding that she wouldn't mind owning a few banners herself.
The Weisers find that institutions are keen to work with them. Along with New York's MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago are regionals such as the Toledo Museum of Art. With the Art Gallery of Ontario already on their list, they want to add more from abroad.
The business can be tricky. Buyers try to reserve banners, but the Weisers never know how many they'll wind up with. Rough weather or too much sun can make banners unsalable. And the names of corporate sponsors may have to be steamed off if they haven't agreed to the resale.
For now, the business is tiny. It currently carries about 75 designs among the 1,000 banners in stock. But it's a joy for the Weisers. "I may not make a million, but I can have the lifestyle I want and really enjoy what I'm doing," Nora says. And plenty of collectors can enjoy the fruits of her labor, too.
By Joseph Weber