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America Creates

America Creates - a new site for artists, craftspeople and patrons of the arts

America Creates - a new site for artists, craftspeople and patrons of the arts

Two refugees from the corporate world have started up America Creates, a new artists site with some interesting features.  The website is unique for a number of reasons, and stands out among the crowd of wannabe art destination sites. For starters, its creators, Sharon Sinclair and Larry Hitchcock both have extensive creative backgrounds. Larry worked as Creative Director at Disney for years, and was a veteran of rock concert staging before that. Sharon, his partner also has a background in stage design and interior design. Together, they share a love for handmade objects and American craft. 

But the site is more than a pretty storefront. They’ve thoughtfully included whole sections on resources for the creative community, forums, blogs and even a way for artists to post video of themselves working in the studio. In their own words:

America Creates is an Internet business that connects American artisans with a local, regional, national and worldwide markets.

America Creates is a showplace for creative goods and services produced by independent American artists and artisans.

America Creates raises awareness of the people, places and events that support creativity in their own communities.

America Creates fosters the education of future generations with learning experiences in the classroom and apprentice programs with local artists and artisans.

America Creates revitalizes the concept of community, inviting all to participate.

The site is still in its infancy, and is looking for talented artists to participate. It is a juried site, so you must go through a vetting process before you are allowed to post work. For more information on how to join America Creates as an artist, click here. If you don’t already have a website, or ecommerce abilities on your current site, this is a terrific opportunity. Joining the site as an artist or crafter is free, but America Creates takes a 25% on any sales made through the site. There is no charge for listing items, unlike Etsy, so limited editions or multiple sizes or colors is not an issue. Creating variations on a single piece is still a bit kludgy, though, as there’s no way to add your own attributes if the pre-filled ones don’t cut it for you.

But there’s more to America Creates than just a store front. Larry and Sharon hope to enable the site as an information hub for events; creative services; guilds and co-ops, galleries, museums and art centers; art schools and associations, and any other resource that you can think of. Listings are free, and it’s a great way to promote your artistic endeavors to a broad audience. The concept of making it an art-based community is unique and sets it apart from sites that are mainly designed to sell. 

Larry and Sharon have recently hired a SEM (Search Engine Marketing) firm to help get the word out. They have ambitious plans for publicity, and the practical experience to make this a great place to find information on anything art related. Their goal is give artists the best marketing tool they ever had, but they need you and your work to make it wonderful.

Web site construction 101

Many artists don’t have the time or the inclination to put together a decent Web site, but a well-organized site is perhaps one of the best marketing tools you can have. The following comment is representative of many artists’ feelings:

If my frustration (read hysteria LOL) is showing…sorry…I thought I
was close to getting a site up by registering, then hosting my domain,
but am CLULESS as to what comes next. In desperation for a place to
point people, I put a “shop” up on ebay, but would like a site where
people can pick an image, choose size, mounting, finishes,
etc..probably asking too much at this point. As a starving artist
trying to get a million things together for my first art fair I
already feel frazzled but it seems counterproductive NOT to be able to
point people to a website at the same time….it should look decent tho’.

Has anyone got an opinion on adding paypal to a site?? So many
questions, so little time :o)

Your best solution is to break it down into manageable parts.You probably won’t get to the point where you have a site where folks can choose as many variables as you suggest and add to a cart, without much learning and experimentation. Most hosting companies offer simple site builders, but they aren’t great, for a number of reasons. Design flexibility in the templates, number of pages you can reasonably build and manage, features like a gallery or shopping cart — these are all limited by site building engines, by design.

So, break the project down into phases.

Start with a basic, “this is who I am” site. The key elements might be your artist’s statement, a little about how you got to where you are, how to get in contact with you and a few static images of your work.

GoDaddy’s “Website Tonight” will get you there quickly as will most template style web builders, but its main limitation is that you pay a lot for a few pages. This isn’t a very sustainable model, but it will teach you a little about site building, and it will get some content online quickly. You could also use this to link to photo albums on Flickr!, Photobucket or an eBay store, although you are then really building 2 sites, using two different interfaces on two different hosts. It’s usually better to keep your visitors on one site if you can.

You might also consider using a blog format instead of a traditional site format. A blog will allow you to create, add and edit content and build a small user interface without any real code knowledge. You can build this on GoDaddy, for example, by setting up a database and then installing WordPress, both of which are available from the hosting interface control panel. A little more intimidating, but still not as hard as learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript from the ground up. WordPress has a huge user base, and there are lots and lots of templates available, for free. The software is free, but it does require that you setup a SQL database, which is not as hard as it seems — most hosting companies have automated the process for you. Blogger and TypePad are two other common blogging platforms.

Both of these methods will get you online quickly and allow you put some information online without knowing a lot of code. Keep it simple, keep it consistent.

Shopping carts are tougher. The easiest way to add commerce for a few items is with a PayPal shopping cart. You don’t need a merchant account or a gateway — PayPal handles all the heavy lifting. And the best thing is that it’s free. You do need to sign up for a business account to use the shopping cart feature. The downside to this is that you do need to know a little code, but not much. Paypal has button generators on their site which will let you paste the code into any site’s HTML. WebAssist also offers a free button building plug-in that works well with Dreamweaver to generate the basic code, which you can then customize. Bigger commerce sections may require a full-on shopping cart. I’ve done a lot of research on carts, and finally came to the conclusion that most of them don’t work well for artists — they are designed for mass merchandising, not one-offs. You may find that it’s simpler not to add buying functions at all, but feature your studio phone number prominently. That lets your customers call you to discuss their needs personally. Unless you’re selling many items a day, that may be more effective in the long run.

Galleries are another thing that can be tough to build from scratch. You can use an online service such as smugmug or photobucket to host them, you can use Lightroom or Aperture to build them and upload them to your site, or you can use any number of open-source applications to build them, such as JAlbum or Slideshow Pro (uses Flash).

But, before you start building anything…

There are several things that are important to consider in building sites, none of which are directly related to the software you use to build it. You can start on paper, and then figure out exactly how to go about making it.

First, and most important, is a list of software requirements — what you want the site to DO and SAY. Start by making a list of everything you can think of that you want on the site, now, and in the future. Then categorize each item in the list as important, nice to have or unimportant. Go back again and prioritize the list — are the important items the ones that you and your audience simply must have? If so, that gives you a starting point for the next step, the user interface.

Take your list and break it down into groups, by content — examples of your work and the artist statement might go together in a “who” section, your show schedule and gallery openings might be in a section on “when”, and so forth. Organize it so that it will make sense to someone who doesn’t know you. Again, you can use paper — an outline (called a site map) or post-it notes that you can push around on a table work well. Write each page name and the content the page contains, on a separate post-it (summarize!), put the category headings at the top, and the less important pages below, as if you were clicking through to each page. Modeling a site in this way can help you visualize it more easily.

Once armed with your list and a diagram of how you want the site organized, you will have a better idea of what you want and what you need. The key thing is to try to plan ahead for those things that are nice to have, but you don’t have the time or patience to implement now. Planning for them now will help later when you do get around to building those features into the site. The requirements will also help you to determine what software you may need to add to the site — there are scripts and applications to do just about anything you might want to do.

No matter what you decide to build, it will involve a learning curve. If you’ve never done it before, it is daunting. Books or online resources can help. Here are a few:

http://www.csszengarden.com — Free, and highly recommended if you want to learn CSS. Buy the book, too

http://www.wpdfd.com — Web Page Design for Designers

LRG PayPal Gallery — a very useful PayPal shopping cart system for Lightroom — requires some code knowledge to modify the template to any great degree.

http://www.veen.com/jeff — Jeffrey Veen’s site

http://www.webmonkey.com — the original, back again in another iteration!

Project Seven — widgets, and menu-driven interface plug-ins for Dreamweaver.

Jakob Neilsen — Mr. Usability, simple, yet effective. Some say too simple.

http://lynda.com — Subscription based, but still one of the best teaching tools. $25 monthly.