Online Tools for Artists & Audiences: A Case Study of the Pittsburgh Artist Registry and Pittsburgh Art Places

Image from John Zobele's website, found through the Pittsburgh Artist Registry

Image from John Zobele's website, found through the Pittsburgh Artist Registry

2013 was a busy year for the Office of Public Art (OPA) here in Pittsburgh. Along with its regular duties of programming public art walking tours, organizing calls for entries, and facilitating webinars and artist lectures, OPA also re-edited its book Pittsburgh Art in Public Places, revamped the Pittsburgh Artist Registry, and created the Pittsburgh Art Places website.

The following article analyzes how this organization, a public-private partnership between the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning, made management decisions that led to the update of the online artist registry and creation of Pittsburgh Art Places.

Identifying Needs: Artist, curator and venue focus groups

The Pittsburgh Artist Registry was launched in 2007 through the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), with the mission to serve as “a portal that connects artists in southwestern Pennsylvania with audiences for their work.”[i] A few years after the launch, and as technology advanced, the staff became aware of improvements that were necessary, most importantly with regards to its search capabilities.

The planning process for updates to the artist registry began in 2011 and took approximately two years. Based on the knowledge acquired during the time the registry had been operating, OPA identified three main user types: 1) artists that wanted to showcase their work, 2) venues that provide opportunities for artists and that want to attract the public to their spaces, and 3) curators that were looking for artists for a specific project.

Centering the decision-making process on the end-user led to the creation of several focus groups, which were designed to be diverse not only demographically, but also in artistic discipline and experience level. All focus group participants were compensated for their time. Below is a brief description of the major findings in each category:

Artists: This group drove most of the changes to the original platform. Among these changes were the inclusion of more artistic disciplines and practices, both visual and performing, and the ability to upload more work samples in diverse formats. Perhaps the most valuable finding from this group was that artists did not want the platform to be social in any sense. The ability to “like” or comment are already available through other channels; the artist registry turned out to be seen more as a gateway to those channels, rather than a platform that artists wanted to be updating and moderating regularly.

Curators: The needs of this group were the most straightforward: curators need to be able to find artists easily and efficiently. Features developed from their suggestions include the ability to log in as someone “looking for an artist” and then create private lists with the artist profiles they select. Additionally, the “career level” field was added so that curators can target their searches to artists with a desired  experience level.

Venues: The last focus group consisted of representatives from venues throughout the region. Their main concern was finding a way that they could actively participate in the platform in order to attract artists and audiences to their spaces. Once this need was identified, and because the information presented by a venue is different from what might be interesting about an artist, OPA decided to create a whole new website—a spin-off project called Pittsburgh Art Places. 

In addition to focus groups, OPA staff researched other registries around the country and evaluated the different features they provided. Two big decisions resulted from this research: (1) the sites would be open to any artist or venue, regardless of experience level, and (2) the site would not have a selling function, because sales was a diversion from its mission and required the OPA to act like an agent or intermediary.

Implementing Change: Update, build and launch two web platforms

When creating the first iteration of the site, OPA determined that a custom design was most appropriate. Out-of-the-box products required an annual fee and/or had advertisements integrated into the platform that moved the focus of the website away from the artwork. Furthermore, hiring a local contractor to build a custom platform had two important advantages: (1) supporting local resources and (2) flexibility on the site architecture and overall design.

The same reasoning held true for the update of the site. OPA created a document detailing the desired functionalities and the relationship between all the information displayed in both sites—the artist registry and Pittsburgh Art Places—. OPA also found that having staff members with basic knowledge about databases was useful because it helped them in working together with the contractor to design the hierarchy that defines how the information is displayed and searched.

When the research phase ended the developers and OPA had two main tasks for this project:

1. Update the Pittsburgh Artist Registry platform incorporating the new functionalities and concentrating on an image-based experience. Artists from the previous version of the site had the option to use the same profiles. However, to ensure that information in the registry remains current, all listed artists are  required to login at least once a year; if they don’t, their profiles are automatically hidden from the search results.

2. Create Pittsburgh Art Places with two main areas: Public art, which is created and maintained by the staff at OPA based on their archives and research, and Venues, which profiles spaces around the region, created by the venue itself, where it can list its mission, services, and physical characteristics. The new site was created with the support of Colcom Foundation and Hillman Foundation[ii], and allows the user to create and save their personal tours or follow those curated by OPA staff and renowned members of the artistic community.

OPA launched the new version of the Pittsburgh Artist Registry in early 2013, followed by Pittsburgh Art Places a few months after. Both sites had a short beta testing period in which the developers and OPA staff concentrated on finding and fixing technical glitches. Today, both sites are up and increasing in numbers as the public becomes aware of their existence and usefulness.

As more artists and venues enroll in the OPA sites, the impact of the platforms will continue to grow. But the benefits are already visible. This process resulted in two platforms that facilitate cultural and artistic experiences to residents and visitors by creating spaces that foster communication and collaboration between artists, venues, and curators throughout Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Mercer, Lawrence, Somerset, Venango, Washington, and Westmoreland counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.


*Special Thanks to Kate Hansen from the Office of Public Art for sharing her time and insights about this process. This case study would not be possible without her input.