Cathie Anderson

This Sacramento retailer now makes more money from museum exhibits than from its store sales

Sure, Troy Carlson sells toys, artwork and collectibles at his G. Willikers and Stage Nine stores in Old Sacramento, but Carlson also builds and tours public exhibits that for the first time last year grossed more revenue than his retail ventures.

“We started this not really knowing what we were getting into 12 years ago, doing one special exhibit at the California State Fair,” Carlson recalled. “It was a side project that was just sort of a fun thing.”

Well, this year, Carlson will have seven exhibitions, and by July six of them will be on tour: “POPnology” at the Boston Museum of Science; “Hall of Heroes” at Wichita (Kansas) Exploration Place; “Animation Academy” at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix; “Sweet” at the Houston History Museum; “Toytopia” at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, Canada; and “Dragons” at the Los Angeles County Fair.

This year’s exhibit at the California State Fair, which opens July 14, will be “Expedition Dinosaur.” Carlson had resisted doing a dinosaur exhibit because he had been disappointed by the ones he had seen before, he said, but officials with the Los Angeles County Fair told him that, if he didn’t create an exhibit, they would have to find a vendor who had one.

“We started from scratch and designed our own ... animatronic dinosaurs,” Carlson said. “We had them fabricated in China and shipped over here. ... We go back to the early dinosaur hunters, (Othniel Charles) Marsh and (Edward Drinker) Cope.”

The Indiana Jones story is based on this era when paleontologists used underhanded methods to compete, Carlson said.

“They were out in the desert digging, and they had sidearms, not because they were worried about protecting themselves from the people there,” he said. “They were protecting themselves from each other. They were trying to steal each other’s finds. We wanted this exhibit to have the feel of the turn of the century, in the campaign tent, and what it was like to be on site at those early finds.”

As detailed and accurate as the Stage Nine exhibits are, they can be set up in less than three days, Carlson said, and that is something that never fails to shock museum officials accustomed to two-week installation periods. Carlson’s exhibits also don’t require much storage room, a luxury he didn’t have on the fair circuit. Many museums pay to store exhibits at off-site facilities until they can be installed.

“We did things that made sense to us in terms of cost and install time and building things to be durable,” Carlson said. “Doing the fair circuit, it’s a rough crowd, and attendance is high. We had to build things that were really rugged because the audience was tough on stuff. It was a great way to learn.”

But there was another learning curve at museums. They had to revamp exhibits to add access points for teaching science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, and they had to develop educator guides for teachers.

Although the Stage Nine exhibits are generating a steady cash flow, Carlson said, he hasn’t taken any profit from that division. Instead, he’s funneled the money into creating the next great exhibit to ensure he can stay ahead of his competition. These days, he spends as much as $1 million to develop and build an exhibit, a far cry from the $30,000 that he spend on his first one.

While many exhibition companies are out looking for the next big blockbuster exhibit, spending $5 million or so to develop it, Carlson doesn’t. The mid-tier market is underserved when it comes to exhibits, he said, and he’s mining that vein.

“We’ve seen how a lot of exhibits get built,” he said. “There’s a firm that designs it, and then they farm it out to a bunch of companies to build the components. Then it gets assembled, and another company is hired to tour it. Well, there’s a lot of disconnects in that chain, and I think one of our strengths, because we did it early on, is that we design it, we build it, we tour it.”

That reduces costs and ensures that when a museum official has a question, his team can get it answered quickly.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee