I’m not completely anti-capitalism or anti-commercial. I do however regularly question whether a for profit business is the most appropriate or efficient form of organisation to complete a particular task or outcome. Often it is not, but rarely will anyone admit this.
Consider the marketing of local art exhibitions in Melbourne, which varies from brilliant to appalling. This post will analyse the marketing of art exhibitions in Melbourne with particular reference to the arts scene in Fitzroy and Collingwood.
It will provide some advice and recommendations to artists, galleries, local bloggers and citizen journalists about how best to promote art and art exhibitions. The examples I give are used to support the general discussion and are not given primarily to criticise individual artists or galleries and their staff.
This post is the fourth in a series about the development of community based and locally oriented social media in Melbourne. The previous post provided advice on starting a blog or website. The first was a guide to local guides and the future of local media and the second was a beginner’s guide to blogging ethics and strategy.
When I first saw Artabase in 2008 I was excited. It is a fine arts site that lists exhibitions and allows artists, galleries and art enthusiasts to build profile pages. I thought it had the potential to develop into an arts social network.
As an art lover, I created a user account. I hoped to be able to set profile preferences to be automatically informed of events in my area or in my fields of interest, but Artabase does not do this. As an art lover, there is no real point in having an account.
I emailed Artabase and asked if they would offer RSS feeds for their content down at the precinct level, not just the country level. I wanted to syndicate the Fitzroy precinct feed feed on Fitzroyalty; now I would like to include feeds for the various precincts in the relevant local news sites.
The reply I received from founder and CEO Rebecca Cannon was positive and suggested precinct feeds would soon be available. Of course I never heard from her again and, more than a year later, granular feeds are still not available.
A screen capture of the Fitzroy precinct page in Artabase made on 16 July 2009
Like many sites that are driven by advertising or subscription business models, Artabase seemingly does not want its audience to consume its content anywhere but on its own site, even though it embeds advertisements in its RSS feeds so audiences cannot escape them.
In 2008 I wondered how Artabase could be sustainable given it seemed to have no business model. Now in 2009 the business model has emerged. Artabase will charge $10 for single exhibition listings (though gallery and artist profiles remain free). Artabase is also offering hosting for artist and gallery portfolios. It costs $20 per month for artists and $40 per month for galleries.
What it resolutely fails to do is serve its audience. Like any site that imposes barriers for participants to contribute content, it is incomplete. It is not a useful place for me to visit to find out about new exhibitions because it is incomplete and inconsistent.
Collingwood Arts Precinct
An example of a great opportunity lost is the new Collingwood Arts Precinct site (published in 2009). Apparently published by the Australian Commercial Galleries Association (whose own site is equally bad), this site represents all that is bad about web design and customer service (or lack thereof).
A screen capture of the Collingwood Arts Precinct site made on 16 July 2009
The Collingwood Art Precinct site (built on Joomla) is a static site with no feeds. In July the homepage is still promoting an event from May. The AGCA and City of Yarra logos on the homepage are not links to the sites of those organisations. The list of members on the homepage are also not links – you have to click through to another page for those.
The site implies that it represents all the galleries in Collingwood, but it doesn’t. It only includes galleries in Collingwood that are ACGA members. This exclusive approach is not helpful to the audience. We don’t care which galleries are members of the ACGA. We want to know about art in Collingwood. The site should be generous and inclusive and tell the whole story. It should at least provide links to other galleries in the area. It should demonstrate value to encourage other galleries to join the organisation.
The site provides no calendar of events or any kind of information aggregation from member sites (who all also have out of date static sites). It therefore provides next to nothing of value for visitors to the site.
Footscray Community Arts Centre
The website for the Footscray Community Arts Centre is the best site I have seen for an arts organisation for a long time. It is vibrant and dynamic, uses lots of beautiful colour, and has separate feeds for news, events and workshops. It’s an example of best practice in design and content.
A screen capture of the Footscray Community Arts Centre site made on 17 July 2009
Ignorance, indifference, exploitation and opportunity
As a website developer and publisher, I find it extremely frustrating to see organisations underachieving because of poor online marketing. I know that all the tools and facilities they need are available for free online.
What they lack is knowledge of how the technology works, how to strategically employ the technology in creating online marketing campaigns and how online audiences consume marketing information. So they either neglect their marketing or pay for marketing services that are often costly and inefficient.
Paying for online marketing services is unnecessary. It makes me angry that the ignorance and naivety of artists and galleries drives then to pay for online marketing services when they could do it all themselves for nothing.
The best way for artists and galleries to free themselves from being exploited by businesses trading on their clients’ ignorance is to educate themselves about how online marketing works and how they can exploit its potential using free online tools and services.
I’ve previously said exactly the same thing about bands and live music venues. They no longer need to be held captive to expensive advertising in print street press, which survives only due to the ignorance of venues and musicians.
Given the youth of many bands and their supposed status as digital natives, this surprises me. They should all have blogs with MP3 samples, gig calendars and links to regular gig venues.
If every pub in Fitzroy, and every band that played in Fitzroy, published a blog and included a Google calendar of their events, and syndicated this content in Facebook, their audiences would receive all the information they needed online and the print street press business model would collapse overnight.
The print advertising business model offered by the street press is the offline equivalent of the online hosting business model offered by Artabase. Neither do a good job of informing audiences about events.
Print advertising is not searchable, and does not allow users to join, participate and RSVP for events like they can do on Facebook. Artabase has very limited features for users. Sites and blogs built with WordPress or Blogger and Facebook are more user friendly and flexible and have more practical functionality for art lovers in Melbourne than Artabase or the Collingwood Arts Precinct.
Venues like galleries and pubs, and creative individuals or groups like artists and musicians should publish their own sites or blogs, either free hosted versions using Blogger or WordPress or self hosted WordPress sites. You can do amazing things with free tools. A great local example is the blog written by Pip for her shop Meet Me At Mikes.
Good and bad marketing examples
Many artists are primarily working for the love of creating and make little money from their work. The mission of artists and galleries is to make as many people as possible aware of the art, when and where it can be viewed, how to see it and why it is worth seeing. I suspect that some are not receiving suitable rewards for their efforts. This may be partially due to their chosen strategies.
I’ve been looking at how different galleries are doing their marketing and analysing how effective I think it is. These are some of the local galleries (and other arts businesses or organisations) doing good marketing and the tools they are using. Coordinating multiple channels works best.
Static site, email lists and Facebook:
- Gorker gallery (Fitzroy)
- Lamington Drive gallery (Fitzroy)
Static site and Facebook:
- Per Square Metre gallery (Collingwood)
- 69 Smith St gallery (Fitzroy)
- Store Room theatre (North Fitzroy)
Static site and email lists:
Blog and Facebook:
- Marker gallery (Collingwood)
Poor marketing (usually because of static websites and no subscription email lists):
- Conical gallery (Fitzroy, static site only)
- Hogan gallery (Collingwood, static site only)
- Area artspace (Fitzroy, static site only)
- Gertrude St contemporary artspace (Fitzroy, static site only)
- Seventh gallery (Fitzroy, static site and blog, albeit not updated regularly)
- J-Studios Artist Community (North Fitzroy, static site only)
- Collingwood gallery (Collingwood, static site only)
- Projects gallery (Collingwood, Facebook only)
- Gillian Grant Gallery (Collingwood, static site only)
In my previous post that provides advice on starting blog or website I explain more about why static sites are inferior to dynamic sites that offer syndicated content. Static sites make readers come to them; dynamic sites with content feeds deliver content to readers and are thus more flexible, convenient and user friendly.
Advice for artists and galleries
- Don’t publish a static site – use a free open source content management system to self host a dynamic site that publishes dynamic content and RSS or Atom feeds
- If a self hosted site is too complex to manage use a free hosted blog from WordPress or Blogger
- Syndicate your feed to Facebook
- Syndicate your feed to other sites
- Read my advice about starting a blog or website and about blogging ethics and strategy
Further advice for galleries
- Use your content feed as your press release mechanism so other sites can learn about your events and report on them
- Get your feed syndicated in a local news site
- Keep the top arts writers informed of your upcoming events
- Aggregate reviews of your exhibitions from the best Melbourne critics into your sites:
Further advice for artists
- If you’re exhibiting in different galleries or participating in events in different places, tag your posts by suburb and city so they can be syndicated in various sites
- Aggregate social media content about your work into your site (eg from Youtube, Flickr etc)
Understand your audience
As an audience member, I’d like to subscribe to the calendars of the venues I attend regularly. As a publisher, I’d like to aggregate all the calendars for events in individual suburbs and include these in the local news sites to help promote local events and the creative talents of local artists and performers.
I don’t think the for profit business model is the most efficient way to market arts events in Melbourne. With some initiative, knowledge and enthusiasm, galleries and artists could market themselves far better, engage more with their audiences and save themselves a lot of money. Commercial intermediaries are not required: artists should do it for themselves.