In this post a summary of the Zambian Art Website project: What has been done and what needs to be done.
By Bert Witkamp*
Text initiated: 8 September 2012
|Fig. 1. Website-in-design in computer.
1. History and background
In February 2011 I launched the idea for the establishment of a virtual museum of Zambian Art. The idea was initially propagated by sending the project idea as an e-mail attachment to artists and art related institutions or organisations in Zambia. Pending the establishment of a website I created a blog, some sort of mini website, titled ZamArt Blog at http://zamart.blogspot.com. The blog served to gauge interest in the project, to keep interested parties updated and to offer a glimpse of what an actual website could do. To show what a real Zamart website would be like I had to twist the blog format a little as blogs are not really constructed to function like websites. Blogs are designed as a chronological series of posts concerning a theme or activity. You’ll find the initial ideas and the subsequent developments by linking to the ZamArt Blog.
2 Main developments since launch of idea
2.1 Support in Zambia
The idea was welcomed by the Visual Art Council of Zambia (VAC) and the National Museums Board (NMB) through its Executive Secretary Mr F. Mizinga. The Choma Museum and Crafts Centre is willing to cooperate with the project. A number of prominent artists also supported the idea and are interested in it.
2.2 Technical progress
I downloaded a website designing programme (Drupal 7) and created a basic site layout. I also downloaded programmes required for local hosting and uploading the site-in-design to an Internet Server Provider (ISP). I secured a domain named zamart.org and subscribed to an ISP. The website address (URL) would thus be http://www.zamart.org. Unfortunately www.zamart.org is not yet a live link as to date the website design has not been uploaded and activated. I find the business of uploading from my computer to the ISP too complicated and am in need of an experienced person to hold my hand/keyboard to successfully and confidently launch the site.
2.3 Concept development
The idea was initially formulated as the establishment of a virtual museum. And indeed the site should be all that a virtual art museum can be. In terms of functionality the site also is to function as an Art shop (having art and art related items for sale) and as a platform of communication for the presentation and exchange of information and ideas – as only an IT means of communication can be.
a) The average number of visitors (“views”) over a one year period was about 60 monthly; this without major promotional efforts. A proper website having a blog, face book page, and inclusion in search engines is likely to have a good number of viewers worldwide – certainly hundreds each month.
b) Zambian artists in large majority underutilise the Internet & associated services. Yet the Internet is an excellent way of showcasing yourself, your activities and projects; it offers a direct way for interested parties to contact you and interact with you; and, of enables access to unimaginable amounts of information.
c) The Internet offers a superior way of social networking; a website thus becomes the unifying knot in an immensely varied, global network of interested parties.
d) Direct online sales of art, applied art or crafts generally are not spectacular because a serious buyer as a rule wants to see the physical work. But a website, blog or facebook page is a very good marketing tool to facilitate and enhance sales.
2. Purpose of project
The primary purpose of the project is to develop, establish and sustain a website of Zambian modern art. The site is to be:
1. A virtual art museum. Its functions essentially are to gather, store and make accessible art and art related information (functions conventionally labelled collection acquisition, documentation, preservation and presentation); to educate (by means of especially designed “documents”, including interactive programmes, cd-rom and dvd;
2. Art Gallery & shop; offering on line shopping and links to other art and art related sales outlets including studio’s of artists and galleries.
3. Presentation and exchange of information and idea’s; such as a notice board for events and a forum for discussion on topics and themes (for example by an associated blog).
A secondary purpose is to promote the establishment of a (national) museum of modern Zambian art. A virtual museum often can provide better and wider access to information than a physical museum. But it cannot replace the experience of immediate perception of a work of art.
The project serves to contribute to the development of the Zambian art world using internet technologies. More specifically the project is to:
1. Document the Zambian art world.
2. Provide worldwide access to documented information about Zambian art, artists, art organisations and art world generally. This includes virtual art tours showing, for example, particular collections, the work of a specific artist, of a specific period or place.
3. Enable interested parties to purchase Zambian art and contribute to income for artists and art owners or dealers through promotion and the sale of the Zambian art.
4. Stimulate discussion about Zambian art.
5. Educate by means of special programmes including cd-roms and dvd’s.
6. Act as a notice board / news room; presenting art related information.
7. Promote the realisation of a physical museum of modern Zambian art.
8. Generate funds to sustain itself.
4. Justification and sense
It is relevant, in this regard, to note that there is no physical museum of (visual) art in Zambia to date. To some extent the Zambian Art Website may make up for this lacuna, and even fulfil certain functions better than a physical museum conventionally does. Neither do we have functioning websites dedicated to Zambian art. The project therefore is not duplicating an existing effort.
5. Development options and strategies
5.1 Flexibility is beautiful
There are different ways to development the Zambian Art Internet Project. You can do something very simple, on a shoestring budget, almost as a hobby, without an organisation. On the other hand you can go for a fully developed project, with a substantial budget, an office, vehicle, employees &c. The minimalist approach, predictably, has severely limited functionality. The maximalist approach predictably requires substantial external funding and is likely to run into sustainability problems.
My preference is to start small, show what you are worth and take it from there; using options and possibilities at hand as these present themselves. Key in the design of this development trajectory is flexibility. The project, for example, can be located any place provided there is a reasonable internet connection nearby. This by now is the case anywhere with mobile phone network – though these connections cost some money. It is nice to have a state of the art computer and camera dedicated to the project, but for purposes of internet documentation a simple digital camera and normal laptop will do. The main cost by far is in labour. Labour, in this case professional expertise, should not be employed but contracted on a free lance basis for specific assignments. This prevents common problems of scaling down when funds are no longer available, or the protracted employment of people not having enough to do, or having proven themselves incapable. Funding proposals, therefore should be very focused and targeted, e.g., serving project components like the creation of a bibliography of Zambia art related texts and publications; collecting life histories of artists; photographing and documenting art work; writing the history of art related institutions &c.
5.2 Documentation and research
The heart and foundation of any museum is a documented collection. From there other functions follow: preservation and conservation, research and education, exhibition and dissemination of information. The issue of documentation in our case takes a special importance due to the lack of a physical art museum and the scarcity of genuine academic research. There also is increasingly an element of urgency as artists die or institutions and organisations cease to exist or change. Note for example that we do not have documented life histories of Henri Tayali, Aquila Simpasse or Bente Lorenz; though each of these outstanding artists has made major impact on the Zambian art world.
The necessary art historical and social research could perhaps offer an opportunity to cooperate with universities; for example by facilitating MA and PhD research of art in Zambia.
5.3 Organisational modalities
I noted above that the project can be done almost like a private hobby or as a fully fledged enterprise probably having NGO status; and all kinds of things in between.
Presently the work done is a personal initiative, under auspices of my company Zamfactor Ltd. The resources of the company at the moment are too limited to ensure speedy development of what basically is a public service. One option is to retain this position but get external support in – this is possible but not likely to meet the needs of extended documentation and research as mentioned above.
Another option is to enter into a cooperative agreement with a relevant organisation or institution; the project retaining a semi-autonomous status. This avenue is likely to enhance chances of substantial external support.
Note that this is an innovative project which may attract substantial support by international cultural organisations and may enhance the standing and functionality of the Zambian cooperating partner.
5.4 Income generating modalities and sustainability
The project has to be implemented such that it can sustain itself “in a basic operating mode” by its own resources. This requires in-built income generating activities as by sponsorship and commercial activities; and flexibility of operations tuning income to expenses and vice versa as argued above. In the utmost minimum scenario the entire project requires only 1 person and 1 computer; active or in “standby mode”!
6 Pro’s, Contra’s and Conditions
1. The project to some degree makes up for the current lack of a Zambian national art museum or gallery.
2. The cost of managing the site is only a fraction of the cost of running a physical museum. Once established site maintenance is relatively cheap.
3. Global promotion of Zambian art, independent of location of the visitor.
4. Flexible project: easy to add on, change or to remove.
5. Development and site servicing can be done from any place having adequate connection.
6. Possibility of interactive programmes and communication.
7. Possibility of extending art education (in schools, or at home privately, tuned in towards need of specific groups &c.).
8. Unprecedented possibilities of participation and involvement by interested parties.
9. Project is in line with future developments and is likely to work better as IT services improve, also in Zambia.
10.Is innovative, and hence may attract specific forms of support.
Disadvantages are or might be:
1. Slow transmission obstructs full use of facility. This is a crucial issue. It may be necessary to have a “light” version. This disadvantage shall gradually decrease in importance as genuine broadband becomes more wide spread and affordable.
2. The project requires constant update of site content and management. There is a common danger of lax site management.
1. Competent and dedicated staff.
2. Public support to get the project to work. One possibility is to apply to development organisations that assign retired professionals to projects, NGO’s or companies for short term assistance.
7 The way forward
My personal preference is to link the project to an organisation working in the field of art and/or culture. The reason is practical: it makes it easier to apply for necessary external support. Initial external support is short term technical assistance concerning web site design and launching. It, furthermore, would help to have some money to carry the project to the point of being operational in a basic way. That position should be the springboard for further project development. Phase II development requires professionals with:
IT curatorial skills (collecting and processing data and information).
Skills to write/produce documents (texts, static imagery, video, power point, or other that can be uploaded to the site and/or used in cd-rom or video).
Computer and IT skills to upload documents, service the website, produce cd-rom’s and dvd’s., and assist in the design of interactive programme’s.
Management skills, including administrative and financial abilities.
As noted above, most professional services should/could be accessed on an ad hoc basis; save for the project manager as there must be one person who is responsible all the time. But the position is not necessarily full time. One may assume, furthermore, that one person may have several different skills and therefore be multi functional.
* The author of this text and initiator of this project has worked in Zambia as an artist; artist’s organiser; anthropological researcher of art; museum and crafts project manager; international development expert; and consultant for NGO’s in museum and crafts development, marketing and income generation.