Customizing for community: Mn Artists’ DIWO approach for a truly user-responsive digital project
Jehra Patrick, Walker Art Center, USA
Keywords: DIWO, collaboration, UX, data collection, community engagement, open-source
1. Introduction: Mn Artists project and history
In November 2014, the Walker Art Center relaunched mnartists.org, a digital platform focused on engagement with Midwestern art and artists. As a platform for networking, research, critical discourse, and community engagement, the site infrastructure facilitates user-generated portfolios and calendars, nuanced search filters, social tagging and “following” features, easy sharing of media from other platforms, and application management software that connects data from artist portfolios to a variety of funding and exhibition opportunities. The site also features a robust editorial program that commissions regionally rooted original arts journalism and criticism. The platform is entirely open source; during and following its launch, the Walker freely shared both code and project information so that other institutions may take advantage of these innovations for their own constituent communities.
Mn Artists was first conceived in 2001, in partnership with the McKnight Foundation, which, together with the Walker Art Center, recognized that while Minnesota—and, in particular, the Twin Cities—possesses a great concentration of artists, arts venues, and academic art programs of varying disciplines, surveys issued in 1997 revealed that artists felt isolated in the absence of a formalized network. mnartists.org (http://www.mnartists.org) was created in response to this need for visibility, offering a central gathering place for artists, patrons, and critics statewide, and through the reputation and influence of the Walker Art Center, it garnered international reach and attention. By 2010, the website had accumulated over 18,000 artists and 1,200 organizational members from throughout the state and over 800,000 visitors annually.
While mnartists.org continued to grow in membership and traffic, the decade-old software infrastructure significantly limited the site’s utility. The site’s original architecture could not be further augmented to accommodate rich media, social interactions, mobile use, and directed search. The software framework, Jakarta (né Apache) Struts, was lagging several versions behind due to dependency couplings, and ObjectMatter, the company that wrote the proprietary code for our object-relational database mapping, folded in 2004. These closed-source frameworks posed to threaten the site’s long-term maintenance and the possibility for upgrades.
The Walker Art Center, like many cultural institutions, recognized that the proliferation of social media sites and user-generated content—self-publishing, photo and video sharing, commons-influenced collective sharing, and selection and critique—exemplified new advancements in audience and cultural participation. In this then-new digital engagement environment, traditional visitor relationships and expectations around the role of the museum as a one-directional or instructional institution began to blur; increasingly artists, audiences, and museum professionals embraced these now not-so-new formats of communal creativity and multidirectional learning and production. Concurrently, the market circumstances following the economic downturn of 2008 brought new interest in “the local” and “artisanal,” and the Walker identified an attendance trend: 80 percent of visitor make-up consisted of Minnesotans, an uptick from 60 percent in previous years. Working artists and creative professionals account for a significant amount of that population. The Twin Cities, center to 26 percent of statewide artistic activity, is the fourth highest per-capita concentration of working artists and commercial creatives in the nation (Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, 2007).
Conditions for necessary digital advancement, coupled with the atmosphere for supporting and welcoming a local creative force, positioned the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation to renew their demonstrated commitment to Minnesota’s cultural community. The Institute of Museum and Library Services funded the redesign project through a National Leadership grant; the national impact from this project, as well as its intended results on the institution, provided potential to replicate such a project on a national level, connecting like-minded institutions with the constituencies that they serve.
Fueled by these interests, the project’s first area of focus was to embark on a planning phase with both the institution and the community to ensure that the program 1) remain dedicated to the artistic community local to the Walker, 2) acknowledge a changing digital landscape, 3) take advantage of open-source software structures to future-proof the software, 4) facilitate museum engagement in new ways, 5) and identify the changing needs of artists amid these factors.
2. Redesigning for relevancy
At the time of mnartists.org’s original conception, it predated major social media platforms including MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It also predated social sharing sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, and other platforms. In proceeding with the rebuild, an overarching concern was to develop a relevant platform amid this newly saturated field. Would a regionally focused artistic platform be competitive among other social media sites? Was the niche premise enough to hold our users and audiences’ attention? Also, why should this program remain a museum-driven endeavor?
To enforce the relevancy of a rebuild in form the Walker proceeded with a community-first approach to product development. This community-first approach was echoed in public programming at the Walker at this time (Smith Bautista, 2014); the museum’s Open Field initiative was simultaneously transforming museum relationships with its audiences—public invitation, collectively produced projects, and the notion museum as civic space was revived through this programming format. The imminent relaunch of Walker’s flagship Web asset walkerart.org (http://walkerart.org) repositioned the Walker’s role as a producer of content, changing its relationship with online audiences and asserting itself as a digital hub for contemporary cultural conversations, as a producer of content broadcasting its unique voice. Principals for the new walkerart.org also pivoted from reflecting internal structures to those that were outward-pointing, moving away from our self-view and allowing for organization of assets by type—events, text, rich media, and content—to come to the forefront.
With a history of collaboration through online and offline programming, the Walker Art Center recognizing the value of coproduced initiatives, and while the first iteration echoed DIY, grass-roots philosophy (Dowden, 2003), innovation by way of collaboration is more in line with the cultural commons Web philosophy of present day, which shifts from the one-to-many paradigm of production and distribution. In “The Image Object as Post-Internet,” Artie Vierkant (2010) isolates the language “they” versus “we” by noting “’They’ implies an alienation from production, a continuous deferral to action…. ‘They’ venerates this absoluteness, sanctifies it, while its opposite, ‘We,’ postures towards the creation of an alternative…” “The use of ‘We’ is not to advocate solely for participatory structures of art but to insist on a participatory view of culture at large…”
Given the Walker’s long-term commitment to artists, our living regionally community of artists is also a primary audience of the Walker Art Center. Working artists wanted to see themselves in the Walker, and mnartists.org offered the opportunity to not only create a welcome, but afforded the Walker the opportunity to hold a mirror to the living community and exemplify a democratic model of inclusion that considers working artists not only primary audience of the Walker, but also valued content producers. This approach also inversed the traditional artist-museum relationship of object selection, collection, and exhibition, by placing value on all aspects of the artistic ecosystem.
Mn Artists as an invitation for museum involvement ensures the reciprocal commitment between regional working artists and the museum. To carry out this philosophy, we wanted to ensure that we were not just making a platform to attract artists. To guarantee buy-in and value for the community, we determined to heavily consult the community we wished to serve and utilize a multidirectional model for research, testing, and distribution that would allow for iterative “feedback loops” for analyzing user contributions and altering our course for implementation – a “do it with others” (DIWO) approach.
3. Feedback loop 1: Data-gathering and analysis
Over the course of the project, Mn Artists staff surveyed over seven hundred individuals, had countless personal conversations, convened dozens of focus groups, conducted research on existing Web models, and interviewed field professionals and experts. This in-depth research and community engagement formed the foundation of reenvisioning how a new site could best respond to the current needs of its art community, taking into consideration the broad range of user interests, technological proficiency, and artistic needs.
In considering the software needs of artists and site users, a large-scale inventory was taken from accrued and ongoing inquiries and anecdotes from our artist user base. From 2009 to 2010, help desk personnel were fielding five to twenty inquiries daily, with reoccurring issues loading and editing files, accessing accounts, and making best use of search resources. This data was used to identify shortcomings and friction points users encountered while navigating the existing site. During this same period, a survey was issued, and more than 180 respondents supplied feedback on the challenges with using the current site, their interests and usage of multiple social media platforms, general Web behaviors, professional needs, and requests for new site features.
The survey indicated that while mnartists.org was still a regular and critical resource and public Web presence for many, it was no longer their primary website. This is in part due to the emergence of new software companies with user-friendly content management systems (CMSs) geared to tailor personal websites as a form of expression, such as SquareSpace (https://www.squarespace.com), CargoCollective (http://cargocollective.com/), Flavors.me (http://flavors.me/), and Other Peoples Pixels (http://otherpeoplespixels.com/). Of our survey respondents, 61 percent had a personal website; for artists, a personal website became as necessary as a business card and offered flexible customization to share their artwork and ideas.
The survey also affirmed committal to Facebook as a primary social media interest, with others like Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/), Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/), and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com) gaining in popularity. More so, the survey cemented our assumptions that artists were taking advantage of multiple Web presences to make their work visible to multiple audiences—to manage images, share events, sell work, and organize their professional materials—and that they wanted to see connectivity between their social media profiles and other assets.
Beyond linking social media to and from mnartists.org, artists also stated an interest in similar interactivity and commenting that these platforms supported to gain feedback about their work. We were also keenly aware of our own content being distributed by social media; by 2011, nearly 15 percent of traffic referral was also coming to mnartists.org from Facebook.
We also inquired about which arts news outlets artists follow and where they found grant opportunities, seek out art events, interact with other artists, and apply to opportunities. These included, but were not limited to:
- News outlets: Hyperallergic (http://hyperallergic.com/), Artforum (http://artforum.com/), and discipline-specific blogs and websites
- Art event calendars: Mplsart.com (http://www.mplsart.com/), Facebook events, local event listings like City Pages (http://www.citypages.com/calendar)
- Opportunities listings: New York Foundation for the Arts (https://www.nyfa.org/), Chicago Artists Resource (http://www.chicagoartistsresource.org/)
- Application management Submittable (http://www.submittable.com), CaFÉ (https://www.callforentry.org), Zapplication (https://www.zapplication.org)
Analytics were leveraged in tandem with the survey to gauge what brings users to the site, from search words, page sequencing, and referrals, to help us better learn about the behaviors of our constituencies and identify who is using the site, why they came to the site, who could benefit from the site, and how these behaviors and goals change between audiences.
From 2011 to 2012, unique page views topped over 3,176,000. Of these page views, we inferred top site behaviors on the site were:
- Homepage: 157,000+
- Performing a search (search results path): 103,000+
- Browsing Opportunities: 87,000+
- Reading an article: 62,000+
In addition to frequency, we also consulted Google’s Visitor Flow maps to learn about user behaviors as they moved through the site’s features.
Fictitious “personas” were developed based on survey data about segments of artists and audiences we intended to reach—from the recent art school graduates to emerging artists working toward a professional career, to the mid-career artist who had already seen considerable success, to the dabblers and hobbyists—each potentially coming from a different region, background, or discipline. This broad matrix of interests was supported by the data supplied by working artists, who self-identified from given criteria.
While the site’s membership was approximately 18,000 users, our data indicated that 47 percent of surveyed artists were only updating their content once per year. Additionally, 27 percent of artists surveyed did not create a profile, but did use other features of the site. This data told us that most artists were creating a profile but really only using it as a “White Pages” listing to connect and be located within this community, or that they didn’t feel the need to update regularly. This led to thinking around functionality that might incentivize and encourage regular updates and keep artists’ profiles, as well as the database, fresh and dynamic to benefit both artists and external users of the site.
Anecdotal data was gathered from artists of varying disciplines to identify needs around functionality. Reoccurring requests included:
- A clean, professional container for sharing work samples, artist statements, resumes, and information
- Connectivity—inbound and outbound—with other social media sites and Web presences
- An easily searchable, self-posting calendar
- Access to opportunities that would professionally advance their careers, or offer support or funding for their practices
- A way to filter through the volume and overwhelm of content
- A desire to manage and save content that interests them
Application software development was also on the rise at this time, shifting focus on the Web towards curating for an end user. This field necessity to target content echoed our survey data, in which artists stated they wanted ways to control, gather, and organize the data most useful to them and sort through the overwhelm of information and content of the existing database. This field and survey data supported an interest in personal feeds, collection, and organization features, as well as maintaining a platform dedicated to a niche interest and population.
In the broader landscape, the necessity to meet mobile requirements became increasingly dire. In 2011, nearly 5 percent of users were coming to mnartists.org by mobile device. By 2013, this number doubled, with over 10 percent using mobile devices and an additional 7 percent using tablets. Aside from the possibility of losing mobile users, Google and other search engines were placing algorithmic premiums on websites with mobile displays.
User feedback and field research led our team to the conclusion that artists should not only remain represented in the database but also needed to be present on the site in a dynamic way and have control of their content. The survey also provided context for the limited ways in which artists are able to support their work financially. In reinvesting in a new mnartists.org, we also wanted to continue to support artists’ ability to make a living, enabling them to connect with opportunities in our community and beyond, and connect them to patrons and professional development resources.
Artists also disclosed their need for exposure and visibility—not just the circulation of their work in digital and brick-and-mortar spaces, but also to receive coverage. Artists revealed they need a network and interaction with other artists and field professionals to extend to a broader connectivity with national arts news outlets, galleries, and national artists and communities.
4. Customizing for community
With need identified, internal and external work groups were designated to affirm our analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the current site, the desired features, and functionality specifications, as well as to designate a new ethos and philosophy around the site and how it might impact our community.
With the assessment concluded and wireframes in hand, our team developed functional specifications that would guide site development:
- Users: The new site would serve five specific groups: artists, the general public interested in art, art organizations, granting organizations, and the mnartists.org program at the Walker. Artists, who currently comprise 95 percent of registered site members, were broken further into six communities: Architecture/Design, Performing Arts, Film/Video, Literary Arts, Craft, and Visual Art. Community affiliation will be automatically defined when artists upload their representative works (i.e., paintings, drawings, photographs) into the corresponding medium (i.e., Visual Art).
- Architecture: Two discrete but integrated components would comprise the site: 1) a public-facing database providing basic publishing, sorting, search, social media, and user CMS portfolio functionality; and 2) a component providing standardized tools for submitting portfolio content and application and jury management for organizations.
- Content: Five types of content would be accessed via direct navigation, searching, or filtered browsing: 1) information about artists, 2) artwork, 3) articles and blogs, 4) event and opportunity listings, and 5) information about organizations.
- Content Management System (CMS): All users of the new site would be required to register as a basic member, artist, or organization; subsequently each “role” would dictate the user’s level of permission to display content. All image- and text-based media (including jpg, png, gif, tiff, and pdf) would be internally stored within the site, and artists working with audio and video would be required to externally host this media on predefined sites including SoundCloud, YouTube, and Vimeo. The site would also provide artists the option to externally host image files at sites like Flickr.
- Developer and platform selection: IMA Lab was selected among local and national vendors to develop the site, due to its ability to develop an open-source architecture. The management team, with the recommendation from IMA Lab, then selected the CMS Drupal (http://drupal.org) as the underlying software platform. A core component behind the recommendation of this platform was Drupal’s Organic Groups (http://drupal.org/project/og) module, which allowed for rich permissions and roles to be specified on a group-by-group basis on community sites like mnartists.org. Content and users could then be constrained or enabled by relating them to one or more groups.
Design and Philosophy
The Walker Art Center’s in-house New Media and Design teams were responsible for front-end treatments and visual identity. The overall design for mnartists.org is intended to be clean and minimal, allowing for artists and their work come to the forefront. The site is divided into two modes: “Community,” which is the public-facing database, and “My Stuff,” which is the user-facing CMS.
The homepage incorporates best practices researched from digital journalistic platforms, where a central block prominently features a curated assortment of recently published arts writing. Under the proprietary editorial block, a smaller block highlights editor selections from external arts journalistic outlets, similar to the “News from Elsewhere” content on walkerart.org. Smaller blocks on the right side of the homepage highlight recently uploaded user events and newly created artist profiles. Below the central content blocks, users find themselves in an endless scroll of ascending recent content of all types, echoing the masonry of Pinterest feeds. The left-hand menu offers entry points into this content, where a user can funnel her or his interests and find specific content or browse serendipitously. The philosophy to have filters used in combination with one another allows for artists and their content to be found in multiple places, overlapping disciplines and mediums, as they would in real life.
mnartists.org’s key features consisted of profiles for artists and their work, opportunities listings, arts writing, event calendar, profiles for organizations, and a forum. Each feature was analyzed for relevancy through anecdotal data, Google Analytics, survey data, and discussion in workgroups. Ultimately, each was deemed a necessary feature for a future mnartists.org, based on usage and correlation with survey goals, with the exception of our forums, which had declined in usage down to only a handful of users. These individual content types responded to discreet needs identified by the community and would each be updated to address the specific needs of artists.
- Opportunities were one of the highest trafficked areas of the site, amounting to 7 percent to 8 percent of all site traffic, and would continue to feature calls for artists, grants, fellowships, participation, and job listings. In response to user requests for increased national visibility, listings would now be culled and posted from national and international outlets.
- Artists and Artwork: While a large portion of users had a personal website for displaying their work, they existed isolated without any connectivity between them. Artists articulated the need for a central location for multiple Web presences and professional presentation. Profiles would be redesigned to have a clear layout and a clean minimal design to allow artists and their work to come to the foreground.
- Articles, also a frequently trafficked facet of the site, would receive an updated layout that could accommodate rich media embedding. Articles would also have intentional connectivity with author profiles, placing a local face from the community alongside their written contributions.
- Events would remain a user-driven resource, but would be updated with filters to find happenings by date, region, and type.
- Organizations would be present within the database, but we determined to give artists and their work premium visibility; organizations wouldn’t require the same presentation tools as artists, and we would keep their listings succinct.
New collecting and following features were added to bookmark search criteria, gather and collate content, and create dynamic feeds from the content posted by other users.
While we had ample user feedback and analytical feedback about the site current usage, we had trouble articulating how many of our 18,000 users were still actively updating their profiles. After extracting our contact lists, we also noticed a high percentage (estimated 20 percent) of duplicate user accounts accruing over the past decade. We inferred that artists forgot their log-in information and were creating new profiles rather than retrieving their passwords, or that they had since changed e-mail clients that they logged in with. A subsequent survey sent in mid-2014 also collected information on artists’ interests in retaining their old profiles or starting with a new account and fresh content. We also had assumptions based on user help-desk inquiries that many organizational accounts were tied to a staff e-mail address and that a staff person likely rotated off staff in the last ten years.
With this data, we determined to not import all 18,000 artists and 1,200 org users to the new website en masse; rather, we worked with our developers to write a script that enabled users to import data and files from their previous profile. Users were also given the option to bypass this procedure and create a new profile without old data. While this would result in a potential loss of existing site members by literally zeroing out the database, we determined that to be a relevant resource for artists and their audiences, we needed to house relevant content. Articles, events, and current opportunities from the previous website were batch-migrated to the new site through a script.
5. Feedback loop 2: Beta
Early in the project, Mn Artists staff learned that to create a user-focused, community-generative site, ongoing qualitative data collection, communication, and community engagement was necessary. Mn Artists gathered over 350 individual responses through e-mail and conversations, a combination of seven different error and feedback forms, and a range of user surveys.
While software development was still in progress, our team embarked on five forms of beta testing leading up to the site’s relaunch, with goals to refine software and user experiences, conduct early outreach and awareness, and advise a plan for the promotion and education of the new site, with the ambition to seed the database. This five-tier strategy was designed to gain multiple viewpoints on how to manage change on a large scale and renew user interest as the site went live.
1) UX consultation: A contracted experience design leader, architect, and UX consultant was brought on to complete a site-wide evaluation in March 2014. This involved a review of the main homepage and content interactions, user account creation, and user content creation (profile, resume, artwork, and events), as well as refinements to branding, mobile platforms, and mobile user experience.
Following consultation, user beta testing was rolled out in four formats to glean distinct data from a variety of users, comprising different personas, occupations, and demographics. Beta testers were categorized into the following groups:
2) Individual testing: Mn Artists conducted in-depth moderated interviews with eight users whose representation varied across artistic disciplines, experience with mnartists.org, geographic location, and familiarity with technology. We analyzed testers’ recorded audio responses (60 to 120 minute each) and utilized that feedback to make inferences on experience shortcomings, making recommendations for appropriate changes to functionality and design, and to inform user prompts and education.
3) Focus groups: Artists in the Twin Cities metro area were garnered through an open call and survey conducted in April 2014. Over fifty artists attended over a dozen testing groups and public workshops, in which the new site philosophy was introduced and users were able to make profiles and upload content. Following basic interactions with the site, staff hosted conversations about their experience and allowed them to provide feedback on the overall experience of the site, suggestions for improvement, found errors, or glitches. We received positive feedback on the new site’s design and usability, and also detailed suggestions on improvements for workflow and instructional language.
4) Arts program officers and arts administrators: In July 2014, the project team debuted the site to arts program officers from the McKnight Foundation, a key stakeholder for the application submission software and mnartists.org. User testing on the portal side was conducted with McKnight and various community arts organizations. Following this consultation, additional customizable fields, WYSIWYG editors, and data displays were added, allowing administrators to collect art materials and easily write guidelines and collect requirements specific to their funding programs.
5) Closed beta: In October 2014, the site was soft launched through a closed beta domain (http://beta.mnartists.org) to three hundred artists who requested invites as a result of the initial open call; this pool also included previous testers, workshop attendees, and beta testing applicants, including regional and rural artists. A survey and error-reporting form accompanied the beta instructional guide to gather evaluative data on user experience, account and content management, browse, and search. Their feedback provided our project staff with information about their experience using the site and recommendations for continued outreach and registration.
6. Launch and audience engagement strategies
Mn Artists launched in November 2014 with an initial registrant base of three hundred users who participated during the tiered beta testing phases. The new website’s key features are six expanding filters of content categorized by overarching artistic disciplines, which can be browsed in combination with a second set of filters to narrow content by type: Opportunities, Artists, Events, Articles, Organizations, and Artwork. This menuing was inspired by user-friendly shopping sites like Amazon or Zappos that allow content categories to mingle and overlap. The two additional key functions are the application management portal and the art editorial publishing platform.
Following the launch of the Mn Artists site in November 2014, a digital campaign featuring promotional videos and a cross-platform social media strategy was rolled out to build awareness and excitement. Together with the launch party, these communications reached a combined digital audience of over 37,000 followers. To support the site launch, the Walker issued a national press release and Mn Artists distributed the news through its existing mailing list of 11,000 subscribers. Printed collateral, including postcards, posters, and other portable materials like pins and buttons, were distributed at Walker and Mn Artists events both on and off site.
To further create awareness, shareable video tutorials were created to assist with the new features of the site. Facebook ads were also purchased to enhance visibility on social media. Instructional webinars were abandoned as a dissemination strategy in favor of help-desk videos, which were hosted in the site’s Help section and available on Vimeo and YouTube.
In the months following the launch, Mn Artists engaged artists with the new website and established connections to the site’s revitalized communities and content through offline programs, events, and workshops. Twenty-two workshops were held throughout the state in partnership with arts advocacy organizations, art centers, colleges, and regional arts councils; together, these workshops reached over six hundred artists from different regions and career stages.
In addition to a communication plan, workshops, and presentations, Mn Artists staff also devised a complimentary offline program series that brings artists and cultural producers from varying disciplines together to talk candidly about issues relevant across artistic fields, enforcing networking and camaraderie that is valuable to artistic and professional development.
In May 2015, the Walker and Mn Artists presented Superscript, a three-day international peer-to-peer conference exploring innovations and challenges in digital arts journalism and criticism. The conference drew 320 attendees from around the country and included nineteen featured presenters from a variety of cultural outlets and organizations, including Hyperallergic, Rhizome, the Los Angeles Times, e-flux, artnet News, frieze, Creative Time Reports, Vice, Pitchfork Media, Temporary Art Review, Design Observer, and Buzzfeed. Through a combination of on-site conference presentations by Mn Artists staff and supplementary editorial content published on the new website, Mn Artists saw a significant increase in online traffic and substantive national press coverage, including articles in Columbia Journalism Review, Art in America, Art F City, Glasstire, Flash Art, Hyperallergic, and more, noting its redesigned platform.
During the launch period, the Walker continued to provide updated documentation, source code, and periodic stable releases for download from its GitHub account (https://github.com/walkerart/mnartists). All software documentation was authored on wiki pages corresponding to the software repository, with appropriate links to relevant Drupal documentation. A software licensing kit was also made available to regional arts organizations, and a tiered replication kit was produced to outline site features and possibilities for franchising.
These combined tactics suited the need to complement the launch of a digital platform with a tiered and multifaceted approach to communication and education, and to exchange a matrix of opportunities for artists, which are as nuanced as the platform itself.
7. Feedback loop 3: Post-launch data, survey, and learnings
Following mnartists.org’s launch, our team measured the project’s success against its merit and relevance museum-produced endeavor, the collaborative methodologies employed in its production, renewed community interest, and field distinction.
With artists as the key stakeholders for mnartists.org, we were able to reinvest them in mnartists.org by seeking their feedback and partnership in every phase of the project. This intentional involvement of the community was a core philosophical tenant of the rebuild: in order for it to be a relevant platform, we needed to know what was relevant to our community, and we wanted their endorsement. This process allowed for early awareness and enabled us to develop strategies for change management, education, and promotion.
The process of working with the IMA Lab as a vendor illustrated a unique cross-institution partnership that should be encouraged when considering replication sites. The partnership fostered organizational ties and increased knowledge and experience sharing.
As a team, Mn Artists also shifted from a one-directional approach of presentation and instruction to a responsive and adaptive program that learns with users. This additional philosophical change is also carried out in our editorial coverage, workshops, and offline program development.
Measurement to indicate community reinvestment include reengagement statistics, attendance at workshops and cultivation events, website analytics, and formal and informal qualitative feedback. Other measures of success include site visitation, registration, and overall user satisfaction, which have been and will continue to be evaluated through Google Analytics, site analytics and facet counts, survey and anecdotal feedback, error report forms, and field perceptions and reach.
The new site garnered 125,000 page views in its first month and at 14 months following launch holds a registrant base over 3,000 artists, over 40,800 artworks, 250 organizations, nearly 2,000 events, and 1,135 opportunities. Moreover, site registration sits at 300 users every month, more than double the former site (120 users per month). The site also continues to receive over 55,000 views monthly.
Approaching our launch anniversary, we issued an in-depth survey to our artist users and received over 180 responses from artists, arts workers, and the arts-interested public. Of the respondents, 74 percent were re-registrants from the original website. Overall, the survey indicated high satisfaction levels and rich user data, including that 77 percent use mnartists.org for their own artwork, and 74 percent were satisfied to very satisfied with viewing the artwork of others. Artists were also asked how mnartists.org has impacted their careers: 40 percent of respondents valued receiving free information on the arts, 36 percent valued feeling part to a larger community, and 30 percent reported the benefit of having a free Web presence.
Following launch, we continued to point users to our error reporting and user feedback forms, which allowed us to continue to make improvements to the software based on user need as well as inventory and quickly correct any software errors and shortcomings. This practical feedback informed multiple software improvements within our first year, including article displays; enhancements to portfolio displays and user CMS; additional guiding text and error messages for users; addressing browser and device-specific CSS inconsistencies; and updates to the submission software. Our users were pleased that we were listening and that we were eager to continue to tailor the site responding to their needs, which resulted in continued trust and ownership of the site following launch.
We also relied on survey data to pair and synthesize behavioral interests with behavioral analytical data from Google Analytics. For example, surveys show that direct searches, as well as search terms like “mn art,” “minnesota artists,” and individual artists’ names, bring users to the site through organic Google searches. Likewise, survey results demonstrate that users coming to mnartists.org searching for particular keywords like “landscape paintings,” individual artists names, and also to browse serendipitously. Praise from respondents remarked on the site’s new clean and welcoming façade, portfolios, diverse range of content, and ease of use. The survey also brought attention to the fact that the sheer amount of content was overwhelming for users, and has inspired new thinking about curating content for users to make the site’s offerings better connected, accessible, and digestible.
Investing in and collaborating with the local community have long been incorporated in Walker Art Center’s mission. This precedent and cultural circumstances formed the impetus for the site’s redesign. Through this process, we also reenvision the role of the museum not just as a good steward of community, but as one which can also provide an interesting dialectic by juxtaposing curated and selected content—through our editorial and offline programming—as a dynamic complement to the democratic nature of the site. We can also share curatorial tools to wade through that democratic content, allowing users to make determinations about the content valuable to them through self-posting, self-curation, and selection.
The relaunch has equally strengthened the program’s relationship to the Walker Art Center. Beyond visually aligning the website through design treatments and feed integration into the walkerart.org’s homepage, Mn Artists’ new programming creates a cross-over between live and digital audiences. This return on investment is measured in exponentially increasing attendance numbers (Mn Artists’ on-site events grew from 40 to 160 attendees in 2014–2015) as well as anecdotally, through comments and surveys.
Competing in the Field
Mn Artists created a distinction from existing social media sites by hand-selecting the attributes and features among them that best suited the needs and idiosyncrasies of our artistic constituency, collectively offering an ecosystem that no other social media site could: a hybrid model that would merge democratic, community-driven content with professional tools and the strength and influence of its institutional foundation.
It is the combination of individualized portfolio generation, access to professional opportunities, curated and relevant research and commentary, and application management software that undergirds the platform as a space for networking, research, critical discourse, and community engagement.
8. Feedback loop 4: Customizing for new communities and connectivity
A large shift in relaunching mnartists.org was a change in reach from a hyper-local, Minnesotan-only focus to one rooted in Minnesota yet conversant with a broader artistic ecosystem. In changing our focus from purely in-state local focus to a regional focus, we’ve seen an increase in visitation from outside our state’s borders. In the past year, 37 percent of our site’s visitation is from outside the state.
While the original site had ambitions for functioning as a central hub for the state, the relaunched mnartists.org sees itself as both a hub and also a node in a greater nexus of artistic, museum, geographic, and digital communities. Following the site’s launch and dissemination on a local level, the Walker has initiated activities to promote the project and its replication capacities to a national audience, with special attention to other artistic organizations and the museum community at large.
We’re interested in looking at geography and niche focus as tributaries to larger global networks. For example, Craigslist and Yelp are broad networks that specialize in localized information and user-generated content. Facebook, a global and universal resource, allows for Facebook Groups where specialist communities can gather. New applications like Nextdoor connect real neighbors through digital neighborhood bulletin boards.
Within our own digital community, there exists subsets of discipline-specific communities, which overlap and mingle and at times are discreet. Our team is interested in Mn Artists as a use case of what a “community of communities” might look like. The notion of multiple geographic communities forming a network, or specifically being developed to serve a niche group, is an interesting digital conversation that we seek to follow.
Mn Artists is a project of The McKnight Foundation and the Walker Art Center and was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Mn Artists and the Walker Art Center would like to thank the Indianapolis Museum of Art and IMA Lab for their partnership on this project. We would like to thank core staff and team personnel Susannah Schouweiler, Emily Gastineau, Robin Dowden, Sarah Schultz, Scott Sayre, Scott Stulen, Emmet Byrne, Eric Price, Dan Riehle-Merrill, and Nisa Mackie for their contributions to the relaunch project and evaluation. Finally, special thanks to artists working and living in Minnesota and the region for their participation in shaping this project at every level.
Dowden, Robin. (2003). “Mnartists.org’s 10 Tips For Building Online Communities.” Available http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2003/papers/dowden/dowden.html
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. (2007). “National Study Finds Arts-Related Businesses in Minnesota Employ 55,040 People.” Accessed 2010 and 2015. Available http://artsmn.org/arts-alert-national-study-finds-arts-related-businesses-in-mn-employ-55040-people/
Smith Bautista, Susana. (2014). Museums in the Digital Age. Lanham: AltaMira Press.
Vierkant, Artie. (2010). “The Image Object as Post-Internet.” Consulted January 16, 2016. Available http://jstchillin.org/artie/pdf/The_Image_Object_Post-Internet_us.pdf
Patrick, Jehra. "Customizing for community: Mn Artists’ DIWO approach for a truly user-responsive digital project." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 31, 2016. Consulted .