Across the arts, digital expression now forms an integral part of mainstream art practice and web platforms have largely replaced promotional brochures and adverts. Interaction between publicly-funded galleries and what could be described as their ‘audiences’ extends way beyond physical visits. Where previously galleries just needed to have a nice looking website, today it’s all about being optimised for mobile and being active in social media too. Here, I provide a commentary on the user experience by sampling selected gallery websites, highlighting good examples, and at the end suggesting some areas for improvement.
Since this is my personal assessment of a sample of publicly-funded UK based galleries, I’ve reduced the commonly-used user experience quality criteria. Similarly, given publicly-funded arts websites can’t hope to keep pace with the speed of new technologies adopted by commercial websites, I’ve not focused on whether any site’s design is ‘of the moment’. If you’re reading this, do ask yourself, how well does your gallery website score on the following criteria?
1. Are you meeting the needs of the customer, without fuss or bother and with elegance and simplicity of design? Digital products should be a joy to use!
2. Organised or cluttered?
Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) has probably one of the simplest and most effective landing pages – a background shot of the park with the message: “Good morning (or afternoon) from Yorkshire Sculpture Park. What would you like to do today?” Below this are links to seven areas of the site, with the ‘search’ function prominent.
3. Clear or confusing strapline?
One of the clearest straplines I’ve found is this: “FACTis a Liverpool-based cinema, art gallery and the UK’s leading organisation for the support and exhibition of film, art and new media.” In a similar vein, Firstsite offers: “Contemporary visual arts in Colchester”. But does the enormous sized type currently in favour with many designers help or hinder the website experience?
4. Understandable language and terminology, presented legibly?
Does your site use “clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as necessary…avoiding obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction”?
Good examples of galleries describing what they do in plain English include:
At Ikon there is encouragement to “Try our Family Trail, Art Explorer Bags and enjoy the creative materials in the Resource Room.” For activities outside their building, the FACT and John Hansard sites headline ‘Community’ in contrast to terms such as outreach or off-site that are less familiar to the general public.
5. Friendly or aloof?
Describing an organisation with ‘we’ and ‘our’, keeping sentences short and terminology straightforward all contribute to a friendly feel. Rather than the usual ‘sign up for emails’, the message at Centre for Contemporary Art Derry and Oriel Davies is to “stay in touch”. Being able to ‘like’, ‘share’, blog or comment on a website are known to enhance the user experience and encourage return visiting. Where they exist, the bloggers on gallery sites are generally staffers, although FACT extends an invitation to guest bloggers who – in support of their career development – get a full credit and biography. (As do guest bloggers on the Interpretation Matters site!) It’s always good to ask users for ‘feedback’ – although Ikon’s site which directs you to a separate site and very few comments, dated 2013, is likely to discourage others from joining in.
Although gallery websites state prominently that entry is free, they do want donations, patrons and seek paid-for members and supporters. Many stress their charitable status and general good work in economic or social terms.
Do galleries come over as artist-friendly? It’s a pity that most don’t include any statement of policy or intent which could support transparency and common purpose in the professional visual arts. Exceptions include:
6. Easy or hard to navigate and spend time in?
I spent some time on each site, exploring menu structures and trying searches. FACT’s menu item ‘Get involved’ is one of the most inviting. Genuinely warranting the adjective “unique”, the sub-menu comprises:
Community, Learning, Health, Young People, Military veterans, Artists, Research, Write for FACT, Volunteer
Although this might appear convoluted, it does give users a real flavour of this organisation’s specific role in its location, and complements its fundraising approach.
With two thirds of adults going to gallery or museum websites to find out about exhibitions or buy tickets, a ‘What’s on’ calendar format for these activities – such as on the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry and Ikon sites – does enhance the customer experience.
Navigating the sheer quantity of wordage held on some websites can be daunting for users, especially as up to 80% may be doing so on a smart phone, multitasking as they take the tube or grab lunch. Good search functions and content tagging – being aware of the kinds of words or phrases users search on – definitely makes a site more interactive and encourages people to stay longer.
7. Do videos help or not?
We’re used to liking and sharing the videos that continuously pop up on our social media profiles. Digital trends analysis shows that it’s short clips that are the most popular. Are galleries capitalising on this to widen and sustain website visitors?
I looked at sites including Whitechapel, FACT, Arnolfini, and YSP that have portfolios of videos, including interviews, gallery education and interpretation materials – and Baltic have created a separate digital content site to host their materials. But with few exceptions, viewing figures per video are in the low hundreds, raising the question of whether the investment in video production will pay off in the longer term.
8. Is the site’s function clear or ambiguous?
Although widening participation in the arts – getting to the hard-to-reach or socially-disadvantaged sections of society – is an aspiration for arts funders and government, it feels like income generation has become a core function of many galleries.
Balancing a gallery’s international and art market status with its charitable intent and aspirations to support local communities presents a challenge – or perhaps a mismatch – in terms of the website’s function and messages. Although half of the Whitechapel Gallery’s main menu areas focus on income generation, with the ‘Buy art’ section containing works from £115 to nearly £7,000, searching on ‘community’ reveals it also has a further function and role of:
“Connecting with people living and working in East London to explore notions of community, place and identity.”
A donate button or call is included on the majority of sites I visited. But what are donations used for?
And finally, what gallery websites should avoid:
I’m concluding with some suggestions for how gallery websites might be improved. Based on the selection I’ve looked at, things I’d most like to see removed – as soon as possible – are:
Not only do these auto-changing banner images do a disservice to the artists whose images are sometimes not credited, market research shows that website visitors tend to see them as adverts and quickly learn to ignore them. Few actually notice the messages they are intending to convey.
You’ve got one chance to impress a web visitor so take advice from the writing professionals – leave out jargon and boastful subjective claims like ‘best ever’. Web users are busy. They want to get the facts, fast.
I’d edit out terms that are commonplace at present on gallery sites such as: “world-class”, “mould-breaking”, and “internationally-acclaimed”. Many institutions also claim to be “leading” in the sector – sometimes in Britain or Europe or the region. Practically everything is described as “exciting” or “innovative”. Get rid also of the art jargon terms such as “emerging and international artists”, “curatorial and critical practices” and “site-specific”, and say “painting” rather than “art work”. And in the spirit of ‘keep it simple’ – it’s far better to have ‘eat’ rather than ‘consume’ and ‘drink’ rather than ‘beverage’.
All public galleries develop ways of handling those visitors who don’t know the protocols – the people who think it’s OK to run around the artworks, use a mobile in the galleries and expect to stay in a warm building on a cold day for as long as they can. Although some galleries tackle this by putting rules and regulations for visitors on the website, wouldn’t it be more effective to communicate direct to this minority of visitors by using some well-placed notices around the building?
But there’s a wider issue. Nowadays, consumers including gallery visitors expect to choose when and how they interact with others. Many of tomorrow’s gallery visitors – today’s ‘children and young people’ – are digital natives, using their technology constantly. Working on the ‘you’ll like this because your peers do’ principle, social media and image sharing sites are increasingly important filters, helping us to decide what we do, buy or campaign for. So I’d argue that in an age when such digital behaviour is commonplace and funded galleries are committed to increasing awareness and participation as part of widening audiences through attracting all sections of society to their programmes, discouraging in particular the use of mobile phones in galleries is counterproductive.
Download article Gallery Websites Resource
Also available in the Resources menu.
Susan Jones is a published writer, researcher and consultant within the contemporary visual arts. Specialising in working with small-scale, practice-led and networked initiatives, she advises on strategic and organisational development and vision planning, communications and digital strategies, and project and organisational evaluation. Follow her on Twitter @SusanJonesArts
Good news! Following last year’s period of planning and development, it’s a tremendous pleasure to announce that Interpretation Matters has been awarded project funding from Arts Council England!
This means that over the next two years, we can further develop and animate this website, work more closely with galleries and their audiences, and continue to facilitate discussion and debate about written interpretation produced by galleries.
In the summer months, you should see a presence for Interpretation Matters in many galleries across the country and on many more websites, as we reach out to gallery visitors and ask them to feedback on their textual experiences in the country’s galleries. This site will provide a neutral platform for that feedback and discussion to take place between galleries and their visitors. Do you have something to say about your gallery experience? Comment on any page on this site, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
With the help of artist Alistair Gentry, I will be working with project partners the De La Warr Pavilion and the Bluecoat to run a series of workshops with staff and visitors looking in detail at how their written interpretation is produced and received. There will also be an interactive text-exhibition at the Bluecoat, to further stimulate discussion with their visitors.
Around autumn, watch out for The Interpretation Matters Handbook, which will be published by Black Dog Publishing. Aimed at a general interested-in-art audience, it will be packed with contributions from a very interesting range of artists, curators, academics and, er, me. It will include audience voxpops, so if you are a gallery keen to facilitate this, or a gallery visitor and fancy getting your quote and picture in the book, please do contact us on email@example.com
Do you work at a gallery and want to get involved? There are two ways to do this:
First, if you are interested in gathering honest and unselfconscious feedback from your visitors, please do contact me for a display poster, and the Interpretation Matters Call to Action for your website.
Second, if you want to review your own process of producing written interpretation, Alistair and I have developed a workshop programme that facilitates this in an effective and painfree way!
We’re also looking for destination marketing and local authority websites who would like to upload the Interpretation Matters Call to Action on their visual arts page.
Finally, we are always looking for more resources, whether in the form of guides, discussion of models, personal or organisational experience, or simply an interest and informed knowledge in this area. Again, if you would like to contribute, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope to hear from a lot of you over the coming weeks and months, and I thank you for your continued support and interest.
Interpretation Matters is all about the written material found in galleries - the text panels on the walls, providing context for the work on show, and the printed booklets that describe the works or overall programme. Usually "under-the-radar", the aim of this site is to highlight this important area of gallery practice.
Interpretation Matters is conceived and directed by arts writer Dany Louise.>