Friday, June 22, 2007

A new owner for Wet Canvas

The reins have changed hands at the biggest global on-line art forum. F&W Publications have aquired Wet Canvas from Kerri Eustice. So what does this mean?

First some facts. The Wet Canvas Forum was founded by Scott Burkett in 1998.....
to help artists connect, collaborate, learn, get inspired, and sell their art over the Internet. (Welcome page - Wet Canvas)
Wet Canvas (WC) is one of the 100 largest bulletin boards on the net and boasts over 100,000 members although this number includes all those who've registered in the last 8+ years and many are no longer active. The announcement of the change is contained in A New Chapter for the WC Community and there's also a Meet and Greet thread.

F&W publications publish special interest books and magazines. Most of you will be familiar with some of their key brands such as
Their website indicates that their interactive media division is a growing and profitable area of their business - so the acquisition of WC must make complete business sense for them. Both the Pastel Journal and The Artists Magazine have recently started their own blogs ( see below for links - and, as an aside, I'm pleased to say that this blog was featured in the Pastel Journal blog's first post about other art blogs last week!)

Here's a link to a video of David Pyle, the Group Publisher setting out what it means from the F&W perspective, emphasising what he describes as a stewardship role and an initial focus on asking and listening. The page also links to an associated survey. Below is an extract of the text of their announcement - and another link to the survey seeking views. Three lucky respondents will receive a free subscription to The Artist's Magazine and a $100 gift certificate for North Light Books.
We are excited to share the news that WetCanvas! is now part of the F+W Publications family. WetCanvas! joins our Fine Art group which includes The Artist’s Magazine, Watercolor Magic, Pastel Journal, North Light Books, and the North Light Book Club. WetCanvas!, launched in 1998, quickly became the best-known site of its kind with a large, passionate community of more than 100,000 artists.

If you haven’t already, why not visit! now?

And if you are already a member of the WetCanvas! community, we’d be grateful if you’d take a minute or two to pass along your thoughts on what you love about WetCanvas! and what you’d do to improve it.

Please take our survey, now!

We will do all that we can to serve, support, and maintain the qualities that make WetCanvas! so compelling. We will also invest in the site, offering new content, events, and activities.

(F&W Publications)
I've completed the survey and it asks a lot of interesting questions. It suggests to me that there may well be a number of interesting new initatives in the pipeline. The interactive and video aspects look particularly interesting - speaking as somebody who already subscribes to both The Artist and The Pastel Journal and owns far more North Light books than I care to confess to!

The survey also wants to know our views beyond the questions asked - so what do I think?

I've been wondering about the future of Wet Canvas ever since the blogging explosion began. People continue to very much enjoy the community of artists aspect of WC and it is still an excellent starting point for many people who are new to art on the interent.

Here's what I think are some of the challenges that need to be considered by the new owners.

Traffic and participation - and the challenge of blogging

Although Wet Canvas continues to be active in overall terms, I think I've noticed the turnover of members increase in some areas. Statistical data about the number of active members is not well publicised but it must be much lower than the total number registered since typically between only 1,500 and 2,000 are online at any one time - although many of these freely confess that they stay on-line all day! It reminds me of the blogosphere where a vast proportion of people don't continue with their blogs after an initial taster. Nothing ununusal in that but it would be nice to look at the site stats in Google or Technorati currency terms (eg only counting links in the last six months).

In my opinion, some of the WC Forums have begun to look and feel a tad staid compared to the individuality and freedom offered by blogs. The blogging community is also very much peer driven rather than paternalistic (membership rules/moderated by others etc). Plus those who blog regularly and connect with some of the formal and informal blogging communities soon discover that there's an even bigger community of very active artistic bloggers out there.

A lot of WC members now have blogs and post on those on a regular basis AND on Wet Canvas AND also in other community blogs - and that's before taking account of any posting they also need to do on e-bay sites or other selling sites they also post on. My experience has been - and I believe this is shared by others - that once one has started to blog the tendency over time seems to be to switch more of your time and effort to your own individual blog. This inevitably tends to reduce input and exposure to Wet Canvas.

The nearest analogy to starting to blog is the buzz you get when leaving home for the first year at university. You start in a new place on your own and knowing nobody. Before you know it, you become part of a new community and end up going 'home' less and less. I know I've 'met' lots of really nice people through the medium of this blog (and theirs) and I've also very much enjoyed seeing some sorts of art which don't often surface on Wet Canvas. I now also get much more traffic for my art on this blog than ever happened on Wet Canvas.

I think the challenge for the new owners will be to recognise and cater for this new trend since it won't be possible to change it - growth in blogging and other similar sites is still explosive and exponential. Over and above the development of new initiatives not currently offered elsewhere in the Internet, I personally think that it might be interesting to explore the scope for the Wet Canvas site to host art-related (and free) blogs which would operate under the same membership rules as existing membership. It might be a really smart move.

Accessibility and ease of navigation - and a plethora of forums

Another challenge will relate to the number of forums which currently exist. So far as I am aware WC has "grown like topsy" and has never done much to rationalise its structure over the last 10 years. Would anybody design it "as is" if they started the site now? I don't think so!

According to Kerri's announcement
they have expressed to me their desire to keep all guides, moderators, and forums intact and to use their print publications and conferences to make WetCanvas! even better. A New Chapter for the WC Community
If I was taking over Wet Canvas, after a period of seeking views (complete the survey!) and getting to know the place, I'd be wanting to ask questions about whether the current forum structure actually maximises benefits for members, sponsors, advertisers and the owner. It's always difficult getting an optimal balance for all the different interests but I'd have thought that some of the forums which have a seriously low level of activity need to be reviewed and rationalised. Certainly the gateway into the different forums could usefully take account of the very different levels of activity.

Some of the forums are incredibly active(eg the Watercolour, Drawing and Sketching and Glass Art Forums). However the level of activity in some of the other forums has slowed to snail's pace (eg Illustration, Composition and Design, Studio Paintings from Plein Air Reference) while others can fluctuate quite wildly in levels of activity on a seasonal or daily basis.

I've also observed very many individual art blogs around the blogosphere (and I'm talking 'ordinary' bloggers here) being much more active than some of the WC forums in terms of posting and comments.

The plethora of forums also, in my opinion, makes navigation difficult and probably means it is less rather than more likely that people explore the site as a whole to find the bits that interest them. Members (and Moderators) remark from time to time about discovering bits of WC only after being members for a long time! So for me, the writing is on the door - the time has come to rethink the structure of the forums to make its navigation simpler and content more accessible even if that may cause some pain in the short term.

For example, would it be a good idea to recognise the biggest area of art which generates the most revenue for artists (landscapes)? Might it be sensible to have a dedicated area which links under one roof the existing landscape forum, the plein air painters, the plein air hall of fame, the people producing studio paintings from plein air references, those painting from photographs in whatever medium, questions about composition and design relating to landscapes, lessons from the master landscape artists of the past plus all the relevant sponsor forums? It could be a real powerhouse forum and yet at the moment all these related areas of activity are fragmented across the site as a whole.

So - what do you think?
  • Is this change good news - or do you have concerns?
  • What do you like about WC and what do you dislike?
  • ....and what would like to think about changing if you were the new owner?
[Note: I should add at this stage that my comments on the change and the questions posed here are wholly independent of both WC and F&W - it's one of the delights of being a blogger!]