Top Two Website Services for Artists by Steve Lambert
It’s not because we’re unaware. We research every tool we come across and we’re told about them all the time. Still, we recommend that participants in our workshops use either Squarespace or their own installation of WordPress software (not WordPress.com). Nothing else.
We have good reason for only recommending these two solutions and we think you will agree with our reasoning below. However, if your site is currently serving your needs and goals well, we are not necessarily encouraging you to immediately rebuild with these better options. Just know that these options are available when the time comes.
There are many factors we weigh when making these recommendations. Here’s a few high points:
1. We want you to have flexibility.
Many artists we have worked with are unable to maintain their own web presence because they have no control, no support, and no where to turn but to a “webmaster” who has disappeared. They’re essentially stuck and we don’t want that to ever happen to you.
WordPress is currently the most popular way to build a website, so there are literally millions of other WordPress users out in the world. A vibrant and healthy community has emerged around this free (as in free beer and free as in freedom) software success story resulting in an abundance of tutorials, themes, plugins and support. If you’re not able to do the work, you’re assured you can easily find someone (paid or volunteer) who can fix a problem that might be beyond your skill level or available time. If someone you’re working with doesn’t work out or disappears, you’ll be able to find someone else who can jump in very easily.
Squarespace is an established commercial service with professional support. Their service ranges from $8-24 per month. They offer ease of use, great tutorials and customer service, as well as a user community, online workshops and support forums. In fact, their customer support has reached legendary status among the IFA team. They even let an artist that one of the IFA Leaders, Eve Mosher, worked with come into their office (in NYC) and helped him set up his site. (No promises…)
2. Your site should look really good.
Not any old template will do. Your artist’s portfolio has to look polished, simple and essentially invisible—it should not distract from your art work.
Of course, we all have our tastes and particularities—there’s not just one good looking website.
WordPress offers two paths towards this vague direction of “looking really good.” The number of free and paid themes that can change the look and feel of a WordPress-created site is quite literally innumerable. You’re sure to find something that will work or may even be perfect for you. Most paid themes offer great features for a one-time purchase price anywhere from $20-$100. If you go for paid themes, shop around and look at reviews as some are better than others and provide different features.
The other route is a custom theme. This can be lightly customized by you as a user, if your changes are minor like colors or fonts, or heavily customized by yourself or a contract designer/coder. Because WordPress is Free Software under the GPL license, you own the software and the themes too so you can make any changes you like. Or you can contract a designer/coder to make your changes to the theme for you.
Squarespace also has a collection of professional looking themes with a variety of options, as well as the opportunity to incorporate custom coding from yourself or a contracted designer familiar with the platform.
Needless to say, there are no ads, credit lines or other distractions with building a site with these two tools.
The website for the artist-run gallery Minus Space (minusspace.com) was built in WordPress.
3. Openness is important.
Yes, you can put all your portfolio images into any old web service, but nearly all don’t want you to leave. At Creative Capital we’re only going to recommend tools to build your site that play well with others.
Again, we don’t want you to be stuck. (See Number 1.) There are plenty of online services that make it easy to publish on the web, some that are even marketed towards artists. They make the boundary for entry as low as possible, but the way to the exit may be difficult, or not exist.
You always basically own your work—you made it, you own the rights—but not every service allows you own the data you enter into their system. Whatever service you use today, you may not want to use in the future. Or that service may shut down. Your data needs to be easy to migrate to another system.
With Squarespace, they make it easy to import and export your data. They seem to understand that locking you in to their service for life is not what will keep you paying for it as much as making a quality product that makes you want to stay.
With WordPress, you own your data and the software itself. You can import and export your WordPress database whenever you like. And because WordPress is so popular, most respectable competitors now and in the future (like Squarespace, for example) will have a method for importing WordPress formatted data.
WordPress actually goes one step further because you own the software. It’s not a user license where you read (or don’t) pages upon pages of a user agreement and hit “agree.” You literally own the software once you have it and can change it as needed. You may never take advantage of this, but it means that others can. And in the future they can make tools to alter it and allow you to move or reconfigure your data in ways we can’t foresee or a for-profit company may not have any interest in.
Data portability is important. We won’t recommend a system that locks you in.
4. Your site needs to be extendable.
You need a site that can grow with you, not a short term band-aid for your web presence.
Another thing we like about WordPress and Squarespace is this: These tools can support you as your career progresses. As you have more work and pages, or become more popular and require more robust hosting or caching solutions, or need another site or a blog for a side project, these tools can manage all of it. You won’t hit a wall and need to abandon the structure in order to move forward. These solutions will work for you at any stage of your career.
For example, artists from high school students to Jay-Z (not kidding) use WordPress to communicate with their audiences online. They use the same, free software. (See others using WordPress here.)
Another example: Three years ago you may have just started thinking about mobile phone accessibility for your site. In that time, Squarespace has added mobile versions to every theme they offer. WordPress has multiple plugins and themes to choose from that have this feature.
You will not outgrow WordPress or Squarespace and watch your website implode just as your career is exploding.
Brooklyn artist Patrick Paine built his website (patrickpaine.com) using Squarespace.
5. Your software needs to be easy to use.
Of course, your website has to be easy to use. The lower the barrier to posting and updating, the more likely you are to use the site and benefit from actively communicating what you’re doing to your audiences. I can’t emphasize how important this is. There should not be another person who stands between you and your website. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trusted friend or a web professional. You need to be able to update your site yourself.
When I started creating my own artist portfolio online in 1999, this meant learning HTML, how to use servers and FTP, and a bunch of other technical stuff I could put you to sleep with. This is no longer true and it has not been true for about 10 years. This means you can focus on making your work instead of learning how to build websites from scratch.
In fact, today it’s entirely possible, without exaggeration, for you to have your portfolio up and running within a weekend.
So what exactly does “easy to use” mean? It’s relative. We all have different skill levels and any new project, be it in your art practice or building a portfolio online, has a learning curve. You’ll need to do some research, learn how the system works, and allow yourself to make a few mistakes along the way without getting discouraged. This is true of every option available for building a site.
The reason we like WordPress and Squarespace is because they are proven to be simple to use for most people. With some 60 million websites worldwide powered by WordPress, the interface has been refined to the point that it is friendly and accessible. If you hire someone to set it up for you, maintenance and regular posting are as simple as logging in and filling out a form or sending mail on the web. Squarespace works similarly.
In fact, it can be even easier.
The new Jetpack Post by Mail feature means, once the site is set up, you can just email your updates and images to a specific, custom address and WordPress will post them automatically.
Squarespace also shares this feature as well as being designed to be as intuitive as possible, letting you navigate your site and edit it on the fly.
Both options offer mobile phone applications so you can post a photo or text from anywhere.
These features make it very convenient to update your site, and as a result, your site is more likely to be a current reflection of your practice.
6. We have high standards.
The above are some of the key reasons we recommend these tools. WordPress and Squarespace are on the leading edge. There are other tools and there are lengthy reasons why we don’t recommend them. I won’t go into any side-by-side comparisons here (or in the comments, sorry). However, armed with this information, you can compare the features and values I mention above and see the differences with other services yourself.
Are WordPress and Squarespace able to do everything you’d ever need? Are they perfect? No. But they are really, really close. Our bar is high and these two meet it.
Which is right for you: WordPress or Squarespace? I can’t give a definitive answer so you will have to explore them yourself. WordPress involves a little more set up—you register the domain and find a host separately, your run your own updates, but you own the software and it costs a bit less. With Squarespace, you can be up and running faster and there’s no maintenance, but you pay a modest monthly fee. The differences in the end are negligible and have more to do with personal tastes or values. So see for yourself!
Note: I’ve received nothing in exchange for these recommendations. There are no affiliate links in this post.