Northwest Arts Exchange: Collaboration and community building

New artist-run online resource helps artists help each other.


When the mom and pop corner grocery served as a neighborhood center, it was common to have a bulletin board where needs, offers, and concerns were posted by people who simply signed their posts as Bob, Sandra K., or Jake at the garage. These exchanges helped in forming a sense of community where people could browse postings and make needed connections.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

That corkboard with scribbled notes has been replaced by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These are important community building tools, but their strengths are also their weaknesses. For groups such as artists in need of that neighborly bulletin board connection, these social media are too time-sensitive and not purpose-specific, which means if you aren’t online at the time of a post, it is likely that you’ll miss it, given the subsequent flood of competing feeds of vacation pictures, videos and news stories.

Creating a sense of community between artists in a region separated by distance, as in the Pacific Northwest, became the challenge that Oregon composer/musician Andrew Stiefel, in collaboration with the Sound of Late ensemble, has attempted to address with the development of the Northwest Arts Exchange Switchboard. Based on the belief that “members of a community should ask for what they need and offer what they have,” Stiefel says, the NWAEX is a “place to connect, lend others a hand, and cheer on the successes that result from working together,” according to a pre-launch announcement. Think of it as a place where creative professionals throughout the region can go to exchange ideas, post a call for performers in Eugene, or look for a venue in Seattle, a photographer in Boise, an ensemble in Portland, a graphic designer in Spokane. “It’s a place to start conversations about the issues and questions facing our community and a way to spark new collaborations and connections that might not otherwise happen,” Stiefel explains.

Creating Community

Stiefel, in an ArtsWatch email interview, recalled that he had been thinking for some time about what thriving arts communities need to grow. “We have some key elements in place,” he explains, “but one I think we lack is density.” Not only are audiences sparsely spread out across the region, but so are working artists. Our largest cities (Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver) are significantly small and “if you look at the entire state of Oregon, the population is slightly larger than Chicago, and that of Washington state is slightly smaller than New York City.” The region’s low population density makes it tough to build audiences and collaborative artistic communities.

“It all comes down to population size,” Stiefel asserts, “As much hand-wringing as there is about classical music (as an example), it has never commanded much more than 4% of the entire music market. In Portland, that’s 24,000 people, but in New York, that’s 320,000 people, which means it’s easier to find people that share your interests and tastes. In the end, the challenges are completely different in these cities. In New York, you’re struggling to squeeze into the space, but in the Pacific Northwest, you’re struggling to pull the spaces together.”

One way to do that, Stiefel believes, is to create a virtual online community through “a network of people working together and collaborating with one another,” regardless of where they work in the Northwest. With 92% of Oregon households (as an example) having Internet access it made sense to create this central online place where people can meet, share opportunities, start new conversations, initiate new friendships and collaborations, and promote the needs of the arts community.

Call for assistance resulted in Portland concert. Screenshot: Gary Ferrington.

Call for assistance resulted in Portland concert. Screenshot: Gary Ferrington.

Stiefel was introduced to the concept of a community exchange through his University of Oregon job, where he works with Eugene startup companies. He had the opportunity last February to observe the technology community launch its Eugene Tech Switchboard.  After seeing how effective such an online exchange was at coordinating and raising the visibility of activities in that community, he connected with the Portland-based Switchboard group that had helped the tech community with its site. Switchboard, formed by a group of Reed College graduates, helps build sites for online communities. With their assistance, Stiefel developed the Northwest Arts Exchange, which he believes to be the first of its kind for the arts.

During Sound of Late’s first concert series in April and May, the ensemble introduced the Exchange to audiences in each city they visited (Portland, Seattle, Eugene, and Boise) with its slogan “Need assistance? ASK for help. Have a unique skill? OFFER it up,” and encouraged audience members to join. “That’s how we began seeding users in each city,” Stiefel notes. Anyone can access and browse the Exchange, but registered members of the NWAEX community can also add comments to a posting, message the poster, receive updates of new listings, and be more engaged in the online community than the casual browser.

The switchboard community manages and moderates switchboard based sites, which means the Northwest Arts Exchange embodies the values that community practices: “generosity, collaboration, diversity, and of course, creativity.”

Collaborations and Connections

The Exchange, launched only a few months ago, is already paying dividends. A recent inquiry by the New York based Fair Trade Chamber Music Society, embarking on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, sought advice about about possible concert venues in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. Eugene’s Sound Of Late Ensemble  responded and together they organized a successful collaborative house concert at Portland’s Pink Palace.

While it started with music, “our intentions from the beginning were to include all arts in the Northwest—so we can encourage collaborations,” Stiefel notes, including theatre, visual arts, dance, photography, graphic design, etc. “I think everyone benefits from bumping into activities and questions from other disciplines. Personally, I love programs and projects that pair art forms or even areas outside of the arts, and I want the Exchange to be one place where that happens. There’s already a number of people and organizations supporting specific communities; Classical Revolution PDX is a great example. We’re not trying to replace that, but extend it (the idea) beyond Portland and across artistic borders.”

Photo 3 Andrew Stiefel

Composer/violist Andrew Stiefel developed the NW Arts Exchange. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Stiefel believes that this online artistic community also needs those people who support or love the arts, who can help by offering “resources, a home for a concert, volunteering to take photos at an event, join one of the many community choirs, orchestras and other arts organizations.” It is also the place for supporters to find teachers, or commission new works. Above all, “it’s a great place to meet the people who make the Northwest a vibrant and exciting place to experience art and music.”

Sidebar:  Exchange in Action

To place an Exchange posting, artists

  • register for a free account, a simple process that includes providing professional interests and contact information.

  • post “Asks” (recent example: a “Viola Opening” posted by the Delgani String Quartet  looking for a part-time violist for immediate hire) and “Offers” (“Accompanist Available”  posted by a musician new to the Portland community looking for opportunities and friends).

  • choose a subcategory (Job/Volunteer, Collaboration, Advice, Events, Resources, or Projects) and location

  • add tags such as music, dance, visual arts, film, et al to facilitate user searches.  NWAEX moderators can help artists determine classifications if needed.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

Want to read more about Oregon arts? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 

Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.


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