WESTAF Celebrates 50 Years Developing Technology For Arts

The Western Arts Federation (WESTAF), the regional arts organization serving the western portion of the US turns 50 this year. They put out a series of videos on the history of the organization. I started watching them out of idle curiosity.

Some of the history is as you might expect with the different social and political influences which lead to their formation. The first headquarters being in Santa Fe, NM but the operational considerations of sending touring artists out resulting in the decision to move to Denver which was a bigger airport hub. Though Salt Lake City was apparently also under consideration based on a newspaper clipping appearing in a video.

What was really interesting was the story about how they decided to focus on technology for the arts. I knew each of the regional arts organizations has a different focus, but I hadn’t known that WESTAF’s focus on technology was based in a desire to diversify the organization’s income stream so that they weren’t entirely dependent on grants and donations. Episodes two and three talk about all the different products they have developed over the last fifty years.

I have been aware of many of their current products like Go Smart, their grant making and administration software, ZAPP which helps art festivals and fairs manage applications, CaFE (Call for Entry) which is built for applying to other types of visual arts projects (i.e. public art, exhibitions, artist-in-residence), and Public Art Archive, which is a place to document all the public art installations around the country.

However, there were a number of services they offered which didn’t quite succeed or were very useful but were phased out as needs of the industry changed. One of their first endeavors as the World Wide Web emerged on the scene was Circuit Riders, the goal of which was to connect arts organizations with consultants who could help them integrate emerging technologies into their operations. There was also a phone line, 900Arts which you could call for advice. In the first year Circuit Riders was in operation, they completed 144 contracts, but after three years it was closed down due to budget and staffing constraints.

In 1998, the Arts Computer program, was created to provide computers and sophisticated software to arts organizations at a low cost. Apparently the approach was to lease the computers and software to arts organizations. That only lasted a year. One interviewee suggested that the program was difficult to administer and the narration suggests that the exploding availability and use of personal computers decreased the need for the service.

WESTAF saw more success with their online job board, Artjob.org which started as a monthly newsletter in 1991, was distributed by email in 1993, and became a website that ran from 1998 to 2015. The video also talks about Artist Register launched in 2001, which pre-Google searches was a place for visual artists to market themselves. Based on the success of that service, WESTAF created WritersRegister and PerformingArts Register to serve artists in those areas.

Current and former staff interviewed for the video series credit former WESTAF Anthony Radich with the vision to offer these services, accompanied by a supportive board who allowed space for some of the initiatives to fail.

There are currently three videos in the series with a short intro video and the promise of more to come. They videos are each only about 10-15 minutes long and are fun to watch. Not every product WESTAF created was an exercise in trying to anticipate an unmet need in the arts industry. ZAPP apparently was a response to Kodak discontinuing the carousel slide projectors that so many arts festivals depended on to jury artist submissions. (I am sure artists are immensely grateful they don’t have to mail off piles of slides any more.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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