“Just like with art, you have to break the rules sometimes,” says Britnie Dates (BFA 2016), a Fashion Merchandising major with a minor in Art History at VCUarts, when describing her retail philosophy. “Even if trends indicate customers shouldn’t be interested in books, you know your customers best. Maybe you know your customers want books.”

Dates, a retail strategy intern at the ICA since the fall of 2015, conducts research about potential products and vendors for the future Lewis & Butler Foundation Gift Shop. She looks at comparable institutions across Richmond and nationally to find out what successful museum shops offer, and simultaneously, identifies unique products for the ICA’s patrons.

Dates’ relationship with the institute started more than a year ago when ICA Director Dr. Lisa Freiman gave a talk to Dates’ Emerging Leaders Program in the spring of 2015. “I’m pretty shy,” Dates says. Yet, she mustered up the courage to introduce herself. What started out as a casual conversation turned into an email exchange, a meeting to talk about Dates’ future career goals, and finally an internship at the ICA.

“Branded merchandise can be really successful,” Dates has discovered, “particularly if you have a new building or logo people respond to. The product establishes a connection and reinforces the memory of the institution through a physical object.”

Dates’ internship has provided her with practical work experience as well. “One thing I’ve learned, among many, it’s important to be concise. People are busy. They have limited time. I have to be particular about what I want to communicate and what points I need to get across. If someone wants to know more, they’ll ask.”

In addition to product and customer research, Dates also investigates boutique merchandise displays and interior design. “What will be great about the ICA’s shop is the physical space,” Dates explains. “It has windows from floor to ceiling and it will feel both intimate and expansive.“

After graduation, Dates plans to return to the D.C. area where she grew up and ideally to one day open a boutique of her own. She is eager to provide a retail experience that isn’t just about shopping, but connecting people with items of meaning, similar to the research she’s doing for the ICA’s gift shop.

Britnie Dates in conversation with Michael Lease, Interim Director of Facilities, Fall 2015. Photo: Tom Kojcsich