Blog

2.5.15

CreativeGround’s first year: a look back

Program Director, Research & Creative Economy
NEFA

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It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since CreativeGround launched! It’s a good time to take a moment to reflect - not only on CreativeGround's first year, but also on the planning, discussion, and hard work that has gone into the project as a whole.

HISTORY & PLANNING

CreativeGround is the online directory of New England’s creative enterprises and artists. It is a real-time online community that reflects the rich range of creative people and places at work in the six New England states in order to promote and connect them – with each other and with those who know that vibrant neighborhoods are symbiotic with a vibrant creative sector. Its development was an evolution of the CultureCount and MatchBook.org websites, and NEFA's service to New England beyond our grant programs.

  • CultureCount was the online database of organizations, individuals, and nonprofit financial data to support research reports on the economic impact and employment of the New England creative economy.
  • MatchBook.org was a directory designed to connect New England’s performing artists, presenting organizations, and venues. Make the match, book the performance.

So, why did we have to do anything? Why couldn't we just continue with the status quo of the two separate sites? Naturally there were internal and external reasons for reviewing and updating them. We had re-launched nefa.org (2009), and needed to devise a strategic long term plan for sustaining three websites (MatchBook.org launched in 2006, CultureCount in 2008) in the face of dwindling resources of money and staff time. We had to address complex data systems with overlapping information hosted in different places, built by different web developers, administered by staff separately, and requiring users to log in and make their updates in two places. But, we were the only region with these multi-state websites, they were serving our constituents, and we had to figure out how to keep them current – and free - in a responsible way.

In 2009 we began a planning process, gathering feedback and implementing necessary side projects along the way. We articulated goals for all of NEFA's non-grantmaking services to New England, and we engaged a technology consultant to assess the back-end configuration of CultureCount and MatchBook.org and solicit input from site users and partners. This resulted in the decision to create a new creative economy directory that combined the best features of the two sites. We created a long list of needs and goals for the site, and what we should do with some of the existing features that we couldn’t afford to recreate. Our goals were not so different from the initial goals and reasoning of CultureCount and MatchBook.org:

  • Fulfill NEFA’s mission to build connections among artists, arts organizations, and funders, powering the arts to energize communities in New England, the nation, and the world.
  • Proudly represent a region with so much arts and culture activity and actively support our six state arts agencies’ needs for their own state creative economy directories
  • Continue the legacy of studies that NEFA started in 1970s for quantifying and demonstrating the impact of the New England creative economy
  • Support NEFA’s New England grant programs’ need to identify artists of particular disciplines or background – New England Presenting & Touring (NEST, Expeditions), Public Art, Native Arts
  • Extend our reach of service beyond NEFA grants
  • Promote the New England creative sector to national and regional potential investors/collaborators
  • Reflect the work actually happening on the ground as a demonstration of the numbers of organizations and artists cited in reports
  • Be a foundation (er, common ground) for creative exchange among the sector and those doing creative economy work in communities

IMPROVING UPON THE PAST – THE CREATIVEGROUND PLAN

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We were eager for the opportunity to improve upon the prior sites, and in doing so we had to navigate their major differences while not losing important features. For example, MatchBook.org data was user-generated and minimally vetted; CultureCount data was mostly input from federal and state data sources and edited by NEFA or a research consultant. The new site would be a middle ground – the data would be user-generated and updated, but quality checked and coded for research purposes on the back end.

Other site requirements were pretty straightforward: strong visual and functional appeal; clear calls to action; user-friendly interface; flexible technology that enables administrative changes and site updates. It also had to be a clear product of NEFA and its partners, with a complementary brand and links back to the nefa.org website as relevant.

A main evolution in CreativeGround is that it aims to give New England communities more visibility. Profiles still describe the activity of the organizations and individuals of the professional creative sector, but we know that the impact of their work – and the foundation for their long-term success – is largely due to the communities in which they operate. This is why CreativeGround's Explore function shows the numbers of profiles in each town at a glance before you start drilling down.

Another goal was to track and highlight the relationships between profiles more. We help people understand the sector by focusing on its unique qualities: various legal statuses, various disciplines and services and ways of working, and a crucial interaction among each other and with audiences, buyers, investors, etc.

These and other goals were incorporated as we built the site, migrated the data from the prior sites, tested, gathered feedback from beta testers, and were finally ready to launch:

Welcome to CreativeGround, New England’s only regional directory spotlighting the rich range of creative people and places at work in the six New England states. It enhances NEFA’s services to organizations, artists and communities in New England through a new online resource that will:

  • Connect the cultural nonprofits like libraries and theaters, the creative businesses like recording studios and design agencies, and the artists of all disciplines such as performing arts, visual arts, and crafts
  • Spotlight the rich range of creative people and places at work in the six New England states (especially performing and teaching artists, Native American artists, and artists doing public art)
  • Strengthen the understanding of those leveraging the creative sector by providing a common online space for these enterprises to describe their work, create a gallery of their creations, and highlight those they’ve worked with in the past.

We couldn’t fit everything on our wish list into Phase I, but we know that a website like CreativeGround is never complete. We already have a list going for Phase II and beyond!

CREATIVEGROUND LAUNCH/MARKETING – YEAR ONE

The next big task after technically developing and launching CreativeGround? Getting the word out. First we informed everyone with MatchBook.org and CultureCount profiles about the change-over to CreativeGround. All of their information was transferred over, but we still needed them to login and update their profile with the many new options available. Also, many of the profiles brought over from CultureCount did not have users managing or updating them. We had to reach out to representatives of those profiles to create user accounts and take ownership of them. And of course we needed to explain WHY they should do this. We’re constantly fine-tuning the language we use on print materials, our website, and email communication whether general or customized for different arts and non-arts audiences, but the ultimate message stays the same. FIND others for collaborations; be FOUND for opportunities; and BE A PART of the vast creative economy network in New England.

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Next we needed to inform the rest of New England. We wanted people not just to manage their profile or create a new one, but we wanted people outside of the creative sector to search the directory! After all, CreativeGround isn’t just for artists, organizations, and creative businesses – a fundamental goal of CreativeGround is encouraging non-arts entities such as government departments, city planners, and developers to use it too to connect with the players in the arts sector. This cross-sector collaboration is not just a goal of CreativeGround, but a necessity to the success of the creative economy at large.

So how do we get the word out? With a regional directory that serves all six New-England states and a small staff, we determined early on that we needed to be thoughtful about how we approached marketing the directory. We wanted to be everywhere all of the time, but instead set our sights on forming strategic partnerships and finding champions who could help get the word out to their communities. We found these champions in the form of the six New England state arts agencies, regional arts councils, artist associations, and community leaders such as libraries and arts centers.

The state arts agencies, along with NEFA and the National Endowment for the Arts, have been partners in creating and launching CreativeGround. These agencies were crucial to early conversations about the development of CreativeGround and are a voice in quarterly meetings during which we talk about how their constituencies are interacting with CreativeGround, any feedback they’ve received from users, and how we can promote it. CreativeGround now serves as the artist directory for Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Since January 30, 2014, 1,851 profiles have been updated – with more users logging in and updating their profile each day. Many of our partners and champions such as the state and local arts agencies, regional arts membership organizations, and community leaders review their specific community’s profiles and flag ones that are out of date or no longer exist. The more users do this, the better the site reflects the artists, cultural nonprofits, and creative businesses doing great work in our neighborhoods. And the more impact each have on the other.

CreativeGround staff have traveled to all six New England states promoting CreativeGround and doing demonstrations of the site. From small organizational meetings to large 1,000-person conferences attended by artists, organizations, businesses, city departments, arts councils, city planners, and developers, we’ve promoted CreativeGround to a wide range of individuals looking to use it in a variety of ways. Our spring calendar is packed with more events throughout New England and we’re always looking for other events to attend. Let us know if you’d like to host one in your region. (Contact Allie at creativeground@nefa.org).

As you can see, year one has been full of activity online and off. We've learned so much about New England’s artists and creative enterprises through new and updated CreativeGround profiles, promotions, and workshops - we hope you have too!

WHAT’S NEXT?

As can be seen from our outline of the development and launch of CreativeGround, this directory has proven to be a tremendous undertaking filled with successes and challenges. We are proud of what we’ve produced and have received a lot of positive feedback. (We didn’t expect artists to replace their own websites with their CreativeGround profiles!) And, we are keenly aware of the constant updates and adjustments that need to be made to the site to enhance its usability for those creating profiles and performing searches. User feedback will always be essential to the project’s advancement.

We most recently gathered input from a survey sent to anyone with a user account as well as those without user accounts who have utilized CreativeGround as a search tool. We wanted to know how people are using CreativeGround, what functions were working well, what some of the user challenges were, and what changes people would like to see. We received over 200 responses, and, as with any survey, the responses ranged from rave reviews to frustrations. We will review suggestions, and put a plan in place for moving forward. Thank you to everyone who completed the survey, and if you haven’t yet had a chance to but would like to, you can find it here:

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Marketing through email, mailings, and events is a priority. It is important that we continue to encourage individuals and organizations who already have profiles to update them, while simultaneously promoting the addition of new, robust profiles.

CreativeGround is a resource for the community as well as for NEFA to collect valuable information for the field. While we have invested years into quantifying the characteristics of cultural nonprofits in the region, there is not yet a comparable national or regional data source on the individual artist community. By collecting important information from our growing number of artist profiles, we begin to close that gap and position NEFA to eventually paint a picture of individual artists in New England.

Since launch one year ago, CreativeGround has made an impact among New England artists, creative businesses, cultural nonprofits, and those looking to find and work with them. Our next year will be as busy and goal-driven as our first as we develop CreativeGround technically, clean outdated data with the help of users, grow the number of robust profiles, and enhance the directory’s role as a valuable tool for arts and non-arts communities alike in New England. Thank you for an exciting first year.

A project of the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), CreativeGround is brought to you through ongoing partnerships with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Arts Commission, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Vermont Arts Council.