The classification of a dealer in the arts and antiques business has always been restricted to a particular specialty or style. The level of price point adds to the risk and rewards. Has this basis of the individual dealer format based on price and knowledge narrowed the concept of diversity; is such specialization systemic or more of an image? If it is an image, should “art and antiques” dealers reinvent themselves as “fine and decorative arts” dealers?
The opportunity to change the image of a business or an industry can come by luck, opportunity, or good vision and planning. Presently the art and antiques industry has no direction or a cohesive voice among its many dealer organizations and one would expect that with this kind of fragmented leadership there isn’t the possibility to create or alter the public perception of what we do and how we do it. It seems that only the drama of TV shows like the Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers can enter the public consciousness of who dealers are and how they operate. In a way, dealers are portrayed as either elitist or a bit like buffoons who get lucky. Being a refined and approachable businessman seems like an oxymoron.
For dealers to survive the last resort is to find aid in numbers with the art and antiques show format, not that shows offer any kind of new medium to reinvent how dealers portray themselves and their industry. The show format is so predictable that I find it reinforces everything that should be changed. The weaknesses of being a dealer are clearly on display, with their need for conformity and lack of individuality, except of course for their pigeon-hole specialty. A show affords the exhibition of a little inventory in a lot of fields. There always is an even distribution of English, French, 20th Century etc. styles but a narrow selection within those styles. Dealer need more than shows to revamp their image; they need individuals who can stand alone and offer compelling inventories to be visited in a gallery setting. The public needs and is demanding the creativity of presentation and selection that a gallery setting can offer. It’s what the auctioneers do so well and fine art galleries thrive on.
For dealers in antiques to remain viable, maintaining the methods of the past will not suffice. Old ways of relying on knowledge and stogy dealer organizations isn’t sexy or compelling to today’s fast moving, information digesting consumers. The success of a business concept like 1st Dibs is based on being accessible and offering a meaningful experience to its users. For dealers, this also means being relevant and accommodating what consumers want and how they go about getting it. While the internet has certainly opened up the market in many exciting ways, the demise of the retail store is not dead.
Innovative marketing and presentation will always evolve. Whether it is Starbucks or Bergdorf Goodman, the need to re-invent and be creative in the mind of the consumer is paramount to being able to succeed. Antiques dealers, or rather decorative arts dealers, need to be ahead of the curve and not be so predictable. Who knows, maybe dealers can make decorative arts really fashionable again.