What Matters Most For an Artist Website: Rules to Be Followed (or Broken)

What Matters Most For an Artist Website: Rules to Be Followed (or Broken)
Misaki Kawai's website (www.misakikawai.com)
(stock.xchng and www.misakikawai.com)

As the art market becomes less reliant on the gallery space, the Internet has become an increasingly important tool for artists to self-promote and guide people to their work. The most basic way that artists can mark their territory in cyberspace, allow collectors to peruse their works, and put a face to their artist statements, is by making a website.

Last month, Toccarra Thomas, program associate for the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA), published a set of guidelines to help artists build effective websites for their practices. Thomas lists her choice of crucial components to be included, and weighs the pros and cons of building a website independently versus hiring outside help. What she deems most important is constructing a narrative from each page of the site to the next, to cohesively represent the artist statement, the work, and the artists’ journey to getting there. The most essential elements, according to her, are the overall narrative, a clean homepage, a strategically chosen selection of artwork for the portfolio section, the artist statement, a biography/CV, recent press coverage, and contact information (which includes links to related social media sites). She also provides a link to outside resources for artists to use to get started.

While Thomas is thorough in mapping out each of her criteria, there are a few things that may or may not be necessary, depending on what the artist really wants to use the site for. In addition, social media’s role alongside the website is also worth remarking on. Here are few places where Thomas gets it right, and a few where artists have flexibility.

Essential Elements

Thomas thinks that the site should be distinct from the work itself, and primarily a marketing tool. Though she makes a good point regarding the idea of a consistent narrative, it is worth considering that some artists will want to use the site as an extension of their work, especially if they work digitally. The model she promotes is fairly conventional: a central homepage connects each of the other elements, and serves as a navigation tool. Some artists benefit from a minimalist, boilerplate layout, mostly if they plan on using the site as a gateway to their digital portfolio. However, some can gain by making the homepage an interactive experience, reflecting the personality of their work. Artist Wim Delvoye (whose site was selected as one of ARTINFO’s 20 must-click artist websites last year) weaves his bodies of work into the design of the homepage through icons mimicking his signature motifs. While less easily navigable, it cleverly tells Delvoye’s story without the extra words or explanation Thomas suggests. 

On the subject of the portfolio section, Thomas says, “You should not feature your entire body of work online, since it will make the site look cluttered and unfocused.” Again, some artists make the choice to put more of their imagery online than others, and in some instances more is just as appealing. Paring your output down to a set of highlights may be a good strategy to drive people to your current show, or even into the arms of your dealer, but if your work is digitally based, a website is already the perfect venue to view it. Painter and illustrator Wendy Macnaughton seamlessly weaves an overwhelming amount of her work into her site in the portfolio section, which serves a dual roll as homepage. By separating her work into columns, she makes a large amount of it accessible and points to how varied her practice is. 

A Biography is pretty essential, and no matter how many creative liberties an artist chooses to take with a site it shouldn’t be skipped over. It gives a clear sense of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what you’ll be doing soon — all things that matter when dealers, collectors, or other artists are considering buying work, or considering an artist to be included in a show. This is where artists should definitely heed Thomas’s advice.

How to Build It

Surprisingly, not everyone takes the opportunity to build a website. Even with so many free online services available, the notion learning code or having to pay fees to a designer can be daunting.

Jenny Kendler, co-founder of the website service Other People’s Pixels (OPP), which specializes in assisting artists, created her business for this very reason. An artist herself, she and her husband saw an opportunity to help their peers create an online presence — while being sensitive to the needs of an artist. 

Do Kendler and OPP follow Toccarra Thomas’s tips? She agreed that an easily navigable digital space was what served many artists best. On the subject of separating the work from the site, she said, “This could certainly be appropriate or even necessary for an artist whose work, for example, might be about the digital realm and online sourcing of content.” But clean and simple was key. “In rare cases, depending on the work, it can make sense to make the website part of the art,” she added. “But, while there are always exceptions, for the majority of artists, the website should be classy and fairly neutral backdrop to their work, much like gallery walls.”

Combine Forces With Social Media

Lastly, there are the important small things Thomas points out that could make all the difference. Press, contact information, and links to social media all give a collector, dealer, or fellow artist other avenues to interact and find out more about an artist and their work. What Thomas could emphasize more, is the extent to which social media can be another outlet for an artist, on top of, or in lieu of a website. Services like Tumblr and Wordpress are free alternatives for sharing work quickly and cleanly, and can give artists freedom to insert their own voices in blog form.

An example of an artist whose work crosses over and uses something closer to a Wordpress model successfully is Cory Arcangel, whose work is also largely concerned with digital media. The homepage for Arcangel’s site is a blog, where he can share recent work or information about shows. Artist and artworld pundit Hennessy Youngman’s (a.k.a. Jason Musson) site starts with links to all of his other social media outlets, largely because some of his most popular work was discovered on YouTube. In this way the site is just a jumping-off point for an audience to explore Youngman’s work, rather than a destination itself.

Toccarra Thomas’s tips are all worth considering, but they aren’t the only templates for success. What should be prioritized is the intention behind the website first, and what purpose it will serve. Surveying the artists on ARTINFO’s list once more, it is interesting to note that more established artists seemed to follow Thomas’s basic outline closely, while some of the younger artists more frequently bent the rules. As a younger generation of artists takes advantage of social media and the Internet as not just the place to market their work, but also to create it, a personal website can become the perfect place for them to do both.