The Future of the Arts Specialist in the Digital Age

The world we’ve birthed through information technology can best be described as “the age of knowledge.” I like the term: it seems a fitting sobriquet for a world in which all human thought is generally accessible within seconds of query, and always available within grasp, or in the case of Amazon’s new voice-enabled Echo, within earshot of an always-on, technological assistant. As a curious race, we love the thought of having every question answerable, and the thought of empowering ourselves to learn a new skill, or find the solution to any pressing issue instantly, is immediately recognized and universally celebrated. However, the negative effects of knowledge on the physical world is just beginning to reveal itself, most acutely in the way arts and antiques are bought, sold, and listed online.

The cornerstone of the antiquities trade rests on the knowledge and specialization that is represented by the professionals who buy, sell, appraise, and consult those interested in purchasing items either for aesthetic or investment purposes. It is very much a service-based market, mixing experience with expertise to create a high end, intensive engagement between clerk and client. The best in the trade have the greatest ability to foster connections with their customers, and a particular knack for making the items they source appealing to their audience, both gutturaly and rationally.

Yet the way we interact with both objects and each other has changed with the emergence of technology, and, perhaps more important, the way that technology has changed the way we consume. In an age where many of life’s closest relationships have moved into a digital sphere, where grandmothers are more likely to read about their progeny through a status update than a phone call or visit, it seems hard to imagine the typical professional-client relationship continuing unaffected. In fact, the rapidity with which people have grown accustomed to purchasing items online has shifted entire markets: items that used to require direct contact for consideration, such as clothing and televisions, are now purchased online without second thought.

At the same time, the digital economy has added the necessity of “high information content” to physical goods. We now expect a higher degree of transparency and pay far more attention to our reasons for purchasing items than in eras past. Furthermore, we expect to be able to access relevant information through our usual channels, and desire in equal parts to find the right questions to ask as the right answers, when considering purchases. In this way, the modern consumer is looking for a truly personal shopping experience, one in which they can look to voices of authority to set them in the right direction while simultaneously prioritizing their individual needs, for instance battery life over screen size.

This leaves the traditional professional-client model of the arts and antiques market in limbo. Where does the sales process fit into a one-sided shopping experience? Can people find ways to add information through experience in uniquely valuable ways? How can the professional experience be related to new and potential clients in a world that waits for novelty to be discoverable instead of discovered?

The answer, ultimately, should lie in the ability of individuals to harness communication technology to more effectively provide the consul and companionship that consumers seek in making a luxury purchase. The best salesmen will always be the most successful and attract the most (and best) clients — however, what defines a good art salesman in the 21st century is more likely to be defined by connecting via social media and fostering relationships through iMessage rather than by displaying at illustrious trade shows, or knowing how to put together a compelling window display.