Is something missing from most artists' websites?
September 21, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

What do you look for when you’re looking at art online? Beyond the standard examples-of-work, bio, CV, statement, and contact information, what additional types of content (if any) might contribute to an informative, engaging website for a visual artist?

The above material is going to be the core of any artist’s website—you want somebody doing a Google search for your name to get a quick, efficient overview of who you are and what you do, and any “supplemental” content shouldn't get in the way of that. Nobody’s looking to waste a gallerist or grant juror's time, and one wants to avoid clunky interfaces and poor-quality media. That much is clear.

At the same time, most emerging artists whose work is intended to be accessed in physical space (be that a gallery or off-site installation, live performance, or what have you) have to contend with the fact that most people are likely going to encounter the work exclusively online, in the form of JPGs, FLVs, etc. Though a website isn’t going to fully replicate an experience of viewing the work in person, it seems as though the format should be able to foster other potentially-meaningful engagements among the viewer, the work, and/or the artist him/herself. My question is really, how might one go about accomplishing this? Are there solid examples of this already out there?

Put another way: imagine that you stumble across an artist’s work online, and it really catches your interest. Is there anything not mentioned above the fold that you’d like to see/know/read about? Are there ways of organizing or accessing the work and information (tags, RSS feeds, timelines, _____?) that make for a more rewarding experience for online audiences?

Not every approach is going to be appropriate for every practice, of course, but I’ve been asked to build websites for artists of all stripes, so suggestions needn’t be universally-applicable.

I also find myself constrained by certain biases that are pretty common among fine artists—the sense that too much explication deadens the experience of the work; that comment sections do more harm than good; that hawking merchandise is déclassé. But what do I know? Maybe people want to see “behind-the-scenes” studio shots or read the “back-story” of every work or buy reproductions or I don’t even know what. I’d really love to know what non-artists—people that simply like art—are looking for when looking at art online.

FWIW, I often find MeFites’ responses to/expectations of visual art bewildering and strange (too long on the inside, I imagine): that’s why it’s y’all that I’m asking. Thanks!
posted by wreckingball to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Don't use an ad hoc, 'artistic' Flash interface. Better, don't use a Flash interface at all.

As for positive suggestions: let people know when your work will be on display or available for purchase.

Let people know if you accept commissions and what media you work in.

Try to give people some sense of pricing. My wife and I buy one piece of original art each year, and I hate it when artists make it hard to find out if their works are remotely in our price range. You don't have to put giant price stickers on everything, but do make pricing discoverable. And speaking only for myself, something like "contact for price information" is not discoverable; it's intimidating.
posted by jedicus at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

What I want if I go to an artist's website (note I do buy art, but not very expensive art, so take with the relevant grain of salt):

1. What does their work look like?
Images on the front page that give me a representative sense of what their work looks like.
This is so important, and is ignored by artists at their peril. I am coming to the website because I saw one image of theirs that I liked, and I want to know if they have more of the same, or different stuff I might like, etc. The main thing I want is to see their work and judge quickly whether I want to look further. Make it really easy for me to see the work; every barrier between me and pictures of art is a point where I am likely to just say "oh screw it" and click away.

2. Where can I get the work?
Galleries where they sell or exhibit, do they sell prints online (if yes: close-up image of the print, what are the dimensions, prices, and printing methods), upcoming shows, etc. Make this easy for me to find.

3. Autobiography, process, etc.
Brief autobiography is nice, process/studio pictures and descriptions of the nitty-gritty are fun, links to other artists you like or work with are nice. Brief descriptions of why you chose a theme, chose to treat that theme with a given medium, classical works you were thinking of, other specifics about a work, are fun. Long writings on the philosophy of your pieces (longer than a page or so) are not of as much interest -- I'm interested in what it looks like primarily, and it's a rare artist whose prose is as rich and interesting as their art. Long writings on what it's like to work in a given medium (focusing on practicalities rather than philosophical musings) would be more interesting to me.
Blog - it's an easy way to announce upcoming events. Also: If you travel a lot and take pictures of things you see in your travels that inspire you; if you go to a lot of conventions or openings or meet-the-artist type things, a blog can be a nice way to say "Had a great time meeting everyone at the BlahBlah Collective show in DC this weekend!" with a little funny story; and you can reveal "teaser" glimpses of works in progress on a blog, in a way that might make fans check back to see what it will end up looking like. But if your artists don't want to do these types of things, there's no reason to start a blog just for the sake of it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:01 PM on September 21, 2010

What I expect to see:

1. Small text that's hard to read, in terms of both font size and content
2. Wasted words (at least 200 words of lazy, self-indulgent writing per piece) that belong in a personal diary rather than a communicative medium
3. A photo of the artist that makes them difficult to recognize
4. A website that doesn't allow bookmarking/direct links (Flash), making it difficult to share

What I want to see:

1. Decent typography and concise writing -- mostly erring on the side of showing, not telling
1a. The more the writing can put the work in context, the better. So many web visitors are coming from a context you won't expect (random search queries, recommendations from a friend, etc.)
2. Some description of the process behind the work
3. Detailed coverage of exhibits and shows, with photos and hopefully video, possibly in a blog-type format (but comments aren't necessary)
4. A photo of the artist that helps me recognize them when I head out to see them

I once made a website for a bronze sculptor, and the most popular part of the website showed his process, from inspiration right down through all the steps of creating his work. It was really educational, and while it wasn't originally his idea, he loved the feedback he got from it.

Some artists are lucky enough that they don't have to care about visitor feedback. They usually have the worst websites.

In the past I've found a lot of good-example artist websites here: Indexhibit Participants
posted by circular at 1:03 PM on September 21, 2010

Yes, if you accept commissions you might talk about what that process is like. Eg for a portraitist, I imagine you could assemble a nice description of "we had a couple of meetings before the sitting so I could sketch and get ideas, here's one funny photo from those meetings, then we had the sitting - Sally was a trooper, sitting for three hours and then we took a reference photo to finish up - here's the reference photo, here's the finished portrait." then a testimonial from the subject.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:04 PM on September 21, 2010

Response by poster: See, right off the hop something I just wouldn't have considered. Most of the artists I know work in media not conducive to sale (installation, video, and performance, which, when they are sold, usually go to institutions rather than individuals) or else have commercial representation, which tends to discourage (if not outright forbid) direct sales by the artist him/herself. The people I know who take commissions tend to do so through agents and dealers.

I definitely agree that if direct sales are a goal, pertinent information should be readily available—I'd be as put off as you by being asked to inquire for details.
posted by wreckingball at 1:12 PM on September 21, 2010

commercial representation, which tends to discourage (if not outright forbid) direct sales by the artist him/herself.

If direct sales aren't allowed for contractual reasons, that's fine, but then definitely steer people towards the gallery, agent, or dealer that represents the artist. And encourage the gallery, agent, or dealer to make pricing and details about commissions discoverable.
posted by jedicus at 1:24 PM on September 21, 2010

I like to see a few hi-res details of the works. Not necessarily and for protection of the artist's copyright the entire work, but e.g., a closeup inset or two of a detail in a painting. ....the closeup may also provide a more "in person" experience of the work's color and texture.

As for artist bios and often overindulgent, pretentious explanations... I tend to agree with you that a little goes a very long way. Studio shots could be interesting, but its dampened for me by the assumption that everything's staged to appear romantically (as opposed to uninterestingly) chaotic. CVs with exhibit history, etc, I suppose are important for those who buy art as investment. When enjoying (and buying) online art it's the art I'm after, so the more I can see of it the better. All site text should be stringently correct in spelling and punctuation and, of course, the graphics and typesetting choices will reflect on the artist.

Finally, I like to see the work of a new artist priced realistically. ...Expensive enough to reward the artist's talent and labor investment and to warrant the buyer's thoughtful consideration. Art deserves to be a somewhat "serious" purchase. But when I see another student's forgettable abstracts priced at $4K I chuckle and move on.
posted by applemeat at 1:28 PM on September 21, 2010

So, are you really asking what information should be on websites of installation/video/performance artists who sell to institutions through agents? Who are you imagining to be the readership of these websites? Where do people see/find out about the work of the artists in question?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:30 PM on September 21, 2010

Response by poster: So, are you really asking what information should be on websites of installation/video/performance artists who sell to institutions through agents?

No, though it would be fair to say that neither I nor the people I've built sites for in the past have been in any way focused on making sales of original artworks online. I was, to be quite honest, unaware that anyone made art purchases online (except for decorative pieces, and there's Etsy for that), so I didn't mention it one way or another in the question itself.

The answers so far addressing sales have been helpful insofar as I may, at some point, be asked to built a site for someone interested in making direct sales. It's simply never come up.

Who are you imagining to be the readership of these websites? Where do people see/find out about the work of the artists in question?

People who are interested in seeing what art is being produced (not necessarily in order to purchase it) but who, for reasons of proximity, might not be able to see the work person? As for how people come to hear about a given artist, most traffic (excluding random Google searches*) seems to come from blog/other online mentions (Ffffound, Tumblr, etc.) or direct searches based on either word of mouth or other offline activity (a person has an exhibition or review, is teaching a course/publishes in one or another journal, etc.).

*for example I made a piece with the phrase "Color Harmony Manual" in the title; I get lots of searches for "color harmony manuals," which usually yields one pageview before people move on.
posted by wreckingball at 3:15 PM on September 21, 2010

Response by poster: People should continue to answer with advice re: sales if they're so inclined, however, as I'm sure that information will be broadly useful for many people. I just hadn't anticipated that angle myself.
posted by wreckingball at 3:18 PM on September 21, 2010

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