Last month, I gave a talk at the Dublin Art Fair about art and content strategy. The topic – which was so huge we barely circled once around it – was whether art can be translated to the web.
What I thought about it
One of the most surprising and nice things about doing this talk was working with an art curator – Jonathan Carroll, who used to work at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin and now curates visual art for Dublin’s annual St Patrick’s Festival.
Besides being delightful, Jonathan had no qualms about sharing his title with my kind of curation – content curation.
Remember that fun debate/fight about whether online content-gatherers should call themselves curators? Rather than safeguarding his position, Jonathan, like me, saw many parallels between our work.
Like any exhibition, an art website needs to be properly curated: websites, like artworks, need a strong concept behind them to succeed.
So why are so many artists’ websites so blah? Or even awful?
In my experience (which is once removed: 50 per cent of my family are visual artists), art and the art world are still a feudal system. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if the art world brands you as such.
Unlike most other creative forms – other than, perhaps, acting – the barriers to entry for visual artists are uniquely high. Writers can blog, or write reviews, and consider themselves ‘real’ writers. But artists need representation to legitimise the work itself. That’s the perception, anyway.
If the art world is taking its time branding you as an accepted artist, or if you’re just between shows, what’s an artist to do? And how can a web presence help?
Quite simply, having a web presence – one that’s thoughtfully self-curated – can help you own your own brand.
And putting together a content strategy – like curating your own ongoing exhibition – will help you both understand your brand, and be able to nurture it so that it generates real returns, in the form of wider public interest, a higher profile, and perhaps even the sale of your work.
What follows is an elaboration on some of the ideas I raised in my talk.
Know your medium
Whether you’re an illustrator, a painter, a sculptor or anything else, as an artist you know your materials and your methods. You know how important the process and the structure is to the finished work. The same is true for your site.
You may not be a framer, but you wouldn’t accept a poorly framed painting. When designing your site, you need to understand the first principles of good web design and good web content, to ensure your work is being framed in the best possible way.
Even when they’re about art, web sites aren’t primarily about being pretty.
The real bedrock of a well-designed site isn’t visual, it’s structural and contextual.
It matters more that people know who you are and what your work is about, than getting the perfect image carousel.
And, too, there are design elements that are particular to the web – things like resolution, grids, typography & legibility.
These things are the tools you have to bring your work to light: get to know more about them if you can.
Cases in point
An example like this shows great, interesting work:
Yet you can clearly see how little use is being made of screen real estate, of readable fonts, of putting images of the work front and centre.
And then there’s this, from leading Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy
I actually love that one. If I had a picture of Bono and me, I would totally share it with the world. OK, maybe not Bono. But Kanye, definitely.
(Le Brocquy’s real worries are a confusing navigation system, no real impression of his actual work on the site – but great personal branding – and no ownership of his own domain name. He does well on presenting a full retrospective of all his work, though).
Consider your catalogue
To be your own curator, you need to understand how you want people to see you. To do that, you need a birds-eye view of where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going. Going through this process will help you figure out what you want to say about yourself online.
If you’ve ever catalogued your work, you already have the elements of a content audit – a simple document tracking your work, cross-referenced with as much detail as you’d like to include.
If you already use database software tagged with thumbnail images of your work, you should be able to export this into a spreadsheet format.
What you’re looking for is an inventory format you can sift through and analyse. What an audit does it help you find the distance and objectivity to do just that.
Curate and conceptualize
Once you’ve reviewed your catalogue, you’ll need to think about how you’d like to organise the parts you’re going to put online. By chronology? Material? Theme? Place of origin? Some guiding instinct about the work, however simply articulated, will help guide your audience through the site.
A well-curated website should tell a story. That means you need to periodically keep things fresh, so that the story
grows and changes, in time with your work.
An editorial calendar can help you keep track of and plan for your site’s updates. This doesn’t mean you create work to order or to a schedule. It simply means you have a living record of what’s there, so that you can amend and update it with an eye on the big picture (not a pun).
Discover your voice
Visual artists are mostly – hey! – visual. Many may also be decent writers, but it may not be your forte – or you might just shy away from explaining your own work. It’s one of the hardest things for many artists to articulate – possibly a remnant of the peculiar torture of writing an artists’ statements in college.
You want content that serves your work; it shouldn’t smother it in jargon.
Try taking a step back from the writing. Think about the people you’re doing this for – gallery owners, sure – but also the people who, in a gallery situation, might walk in off the street and experience your work firsthand. To reach them, you’ll have to consider the total effect of the site – how it looks, functions and sounds.
The personality that comes across in your words, as well as the volume of information you provide – about your work, about your process, about your own background – all of this will contribute to their experience.
Getting there might mean getting an editor to help you think through this. One of the hardest things in the world is to sound consistently ‘like yourself’, and we humans are inconsistent. An editor will have the objectivity to help you tease out what you want to say and who you’re saying it to – while always making sure the visual content remains the star.
Up, running and beyond
A website is not a pop-up exhibition – it needs to be a home for your work in the long term. Getting to know the ways of the web will give your website – and your online presence beyond it – the best chance to thrive.