The Business of Art: Creating an Artist Website, or, The Art of Storytelling

The Business of Art: Creating an Artist Website, or, The Art of Storytelling

One of the most common misunderstandings artists have about websites is the idea that an online virtual gallery or portfolio can function as a comprehensive marketing strategy. I often read articles encouraging artists to simply develop an online portfolio to drive audiences (and potential buyers) toward their works. Unfortunately, the internet is so saturated with images, audio, texts and videos that creative manifestations without context can easily become engulfed in the abyss of the World Wide Web.

Creating your successful artist website is not about simply displaying art. It’s about engaging your site visitors through a compelling story about you as an artist that includes your artistic vision and your ability to create unique works. Your story should be interwoven throughout the structure of the website in such a way that visitors’ navigation through your site should reveal different aspects of your larger narrative.

The resulting relationship from visitors’ encounter with your site’s narrative is what has the potential to create audiences and potentially generate opportunities and sales for you.

The significance and potential of your website will allow it to function as the anchor of your artistic online identity. It is a place where you can maintain full control of your personal narrative (artistic journey, history and vision). It should be the most official and complete version of your artistic identity available on the web.

Just like the blank pages of a book or white walls of a gallery, your website should be a simple and stark background that highlights your unique vision and ability. The goal is to use the website design and content to present a clear narrative that weaves your story together in a way that it is accessible to a broad general audience.

The most basic, common, and effective narrative structure for your website is as follows:

Homepage – The homepage is a brief introduction to the intent and content of your website. It is here that visitors first encounter you and your work. It is also the place where the look and feel of the website should be established. This includes elements such as font, color scheme, layout, and logo (if one exist) that should be found on every page.

A standard artist homepage typically involves the strong pairing of one image that epitomizes your work or vision as an artist with sparse text that conveys basic information about you and the your site’s contents (ex. Lisa Smith. Graphic Designer. Futurist. Feminist.).

Selected Works – Works included on the website should expand upon the story introduced on the homepage.

You should not feature your entire body of work online, since it will make the site look cluttered and unfocused. Instead, make a selection that will give a viewer an idea of your style(s), theme(s), message, and breadth of work, while still conveying a sense of cohesiveness.

If you work in more than one medium (such as photography, performance, and painting), feature a few selected works from each. However, this should only be done if you have a reasonable amount of work in each medium, or if the selected works are in some way related to the works done in your primary medium.

Regardless of what medium is featured, all media should be sized and compressed in a manner that will allow it to quickly load on the website. Site visitors may lose interest, if they are subjected to a long wait before they can see or hear featured work. The specifications for the appropriate media file size will depend on the capabilities of whatever platform the website has been built upon. Therefore, it is up to you (or your website developer) to test the load time of the site’s media on several different web browsers (i.e. Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer), before launching the final version of the site.

Artist Statement – The statement should demonstrate how the sparse description on the homepage blooms into a full-blown story about your vision and creative process. It may include information about your influences, inspiration and creative intent.

This is the area of the website that most clearly provides visitors with context for your work. It should be free of esoteric language and discipline-specific analysis, to ensure that it can be understood by a broad audience.

Biography/CV – Your biography and CV should connect your statement to your broader personal and artistic journey. This section should include mention of your training (apprenticeships and professional development fellowships), past experience working in the arts (teaching, conference presenter, commissions), awards, grants, and exhibitions.

Store/Representation (optional) – Knowledge of the entities that elect to represent and sell your work gives visitors a sense of your established (and potential) value in the art market. It also allows them to become part of your story, by enabling them to purchase the works.

If your art is being sold through a gallery or agent, it is worth listing their contact information, so potential buyers know where to turn to make their purchase(s).

Depending on your needs and resources, an online store may be an efficient way for you to sell art independently. Creating links through a service such as PayPal is an easy and low-cost way to integrate a purchase option into a website that will allow a buyer to use their PayPal account or credit/debit card to purchase art.

Press – This section serves as an archive of press coverage received by you, and thus presents a history of you as an artist in the public eye.

Over time, as the archive builds, you should weed out articles that have very little specific coverage about you (such as a review about a group show). You should also become more discerning about the news outlets represented.

Contact/Email List/Social Network – This is one of the most important aspects of the website, since it is the portal through which site visitors can interact with you directly. This section should contain one (or more) ways for visitors to be in conversation with you.

Email – Providing an email address is the most direct line of communication that you can make available between yourself and your site visitors.

Contact Form – A contact form offers optimal privacy for you, since it doesn’t require that you provide an email address. Visitors simply enter their email address and a message in the designated fields of the form. Once they have submitted it, it is sent to your email address and you have the option to respond directly.

Email List – Embedding an email list sign-up option allows visitors to submit their email addresses to you, via an eMarketing service, such as iContactMailChimp andConstant Contact. This list can then receive mass messages from you about upcoming exhibitions, broadcasted interviews, fundraising campaigns, and other related matters.

Social Network Links – While your website is the foundation of an your online presence, social media networks* on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provide a means through which you can post commentary and minor announcements, as well as correspond with your audience and fellow artists.

Most social network sites offer easy to embed code that will allow a direct link from an artist’s website to their social media account.

*You should note that current policies held by some popular social networking companies call into question the ownership of posted material. Some sites include in their user agreement a clause that allows the site to use images or materials posted on their service for marketing purposes. Therefore, you should be wary when posting images, audio or video of your work. 

Once you have generated all of the content needed to populate your website, the next step is to upload it onto the internet. To do this, a crucial decision about the construction and maintenance of the website needs to be decided.

Hired Assistance vs. Do it Yourself (DIY)
Depending on your computer and internet literacy, you may grapple with the decision to hire an experienced web designer versus constructing a website on your own. The decision is informed by many pros and cons.

The pros of hiring a web designer include:
– Working with a designer allows for the construction of a completely customized website

– Working with a designer allows you to be hands-off with matters surrounding acquiring a domain name and hosting service, updating security features, conducting routine data backup, and of course web coding.

The cons of hiring a web designer include:
– Depending on what you want from a website, the initial fee for a designer can run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

– In addition to the initial development and launch of a site, you will need to pay a designer to add new content to the website as well as run security updates, data backups, and other website maintenance. 

The pros of the DIY approach include:
– If you have a strong command of coding, then you can have full control over the look, feel and operation of your website.

– If you have little to no coding expertise, there are a plethora of art-specific pre-fabricated sites (e.g. WordPress.comWeeblyWix that you can easily customize to develop a professional looking website. These sites often take care of security and back-up issues, leaving you to focus on the website’s content and aesthetic.

The cons of the DIY approach include:
– You are responsible for the continual maintenance and content update of your website, in addition to continuing your practice. – Even if you elect to use a prefabricated template service, you may find the need to pay an annual fee to add advance features on the website (e.g. video hosting, customized domain name, additional space).

– While prefabricated templates do allow for minor modifications, you must know some level of code to achieve a significant degree of customization.

– Should the company providing the prefabricated site fold, you may be is faced with the responsibility of transferring your data to another readymade service or considering converting to a custom-built solution.

If you elect to use the DIY approach to website design, a list of services that offer prefabricated sites specifically designed or well-suited for an artist website can be found here.

The internet is a vast library of resources. Therefore, once a publishing approach has been implemented and your website is live, it will need an ongoing marketing campaign to drive visitors towards it.

Methods for driving an audience towards your website:

Email List – In addition to informing audiences about important announcements regarding your career, email lists can be used to encourage people to revisit your website. Whenever new content is added to your site, an announcement should be sent out to the list. The announcement should be truncated and linked to the full announcement that is posted on the website. This will encourage people to visit the website to read the full story.

Know that in addition to collecting email addresses through your website, you can manually enter email addresses into your list. These can be acquired by receiving business cards from interested parties and having a paper sign-up sheet available at events where you are presenting your work. Make sure to avoid adding email addresses to your email list if you have not received consent from the address holder. Email recipients can report the unauthorized inclusion of their email in someone’s list to eMarketing services, which can lead to having your account deactivated.

Social Network – Social media allows you to do more than just interact with your audience. The ease in which you can connect with other members of the social media community also allows you access to another avenue through which you can expand your audience. With these expanding networks, you can drive more traffic to your site by including a link to your website in the social media profile. You can also post comments or announcements (with direct link to a specific page of your site), on your account feed.

Business Cards, Postcards and Emails – Any means of communication that you distribute should include mention of your website. General business cards and postcards that are advertising a specific event or show should have your website listed clearly on them. The signature of your email (the area right below your name at the end of an email) should also include a link to the site.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – SEO are strategies that can be used to elevate the presence of a website in search engine queries.

– Increased traffic means increased popularity. The more people you can encourage to visit your site, the higher a search engine will position your site in a search result list.

– Search engines recognize words and associate them with websites
Whenever possible, your site should contain as many commonly used and discipline-specific descriptive words as possible. Everything from the file names of images, videos and audio files, to the website’s narrative should contain words and phrasing that people are likely to enter into a search engine. This will help increase the likelihood that the website will appear, when those words are entered into a search. 

Consult our chart comparing popular website-building services and resources, created by Lisa Szolovits, for more guidance.

Toccarra Thomas is NYFA’s Program Associate, NYFA Source.

Amy Aronoff
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