Providing Value for Local Artists: Talking Culturalyst with Cofounders Sam Bowler and Mykia Smith

At the bottom of the website Culturalyst.com it reads, “We are real people, living and working in New Orleans.” This statement encompasses a driving point that the creators of the website, Sam Bowler and Mykia Smith, want future users to take away when they launch later in February or early March — that they’re a part of this community and, not only that, they’re working to make it better.

They aim to do this in the form of an online directory made specifically for artists, creatives, and culture bearers living, working, and many time struggling in New Orleans. The idea is similar to funding platforms like Patreon, with the added incorporation of personal interaction with the artists and an easy way to find people in different mediums and schools of work. “We want it–more than anything– to provide value,” says Bowler, who began Culturalyst as a startup in 2015, “which I know is a pretty basic answer, but we see it as pretty simple: there’s all these artists in the city creating and we just want to make it easy to find them and easy to directly support them.

“We live in New Orleans so you run into artist every day,” says Smith, co-founder of the site, recalling the many times she’s been out working and met someone randomly who produces some sort of art. “That’s the type of interactions we have every time we go somewhere. This is what lets us know that this is something that’s needed, and it can really be valuable.”

It surprised me to learn that both Bowler and Smith did not know how to code before launching this startup. “So Mykia and I learned to code together,” says Bowler, “and we built a really good prototype of the application,” which they them demoed at the Downtown NOLA Business Pitch Contest a few years ago and won. After though, they realized their data base and backend were set up in a way that wouldn’t allow the startup to scale. “So we realized we needed to take it apart, really understand how we want to grow, and then rebuild it.”

“It was a great prototype that we had,” says Smith.  “And it did show the skeleton of what we want to put out, but we realized there is so much more that needs to go into it, and that’s what we’re doing now during beta.”

The website is currently still in the beta testing stage, which requires both Bowler and Smith to continually shift their working roles to suit the needs of the day. “On one given day I’m working on design work. The next I’m working on forming up partnerships with community partners,” says Bowler. The next day I’m coding. So each day is pretty different and I’m wearing a lot of hats right now.”

“In the beginning I was really heavy in the programming aspect of it,” adds Smith. “Now I meet with artists and get them excited about the platform, as well as [working] with the rest of our team developing strategies for social media and event creation.”

There’s also been a lot of support from artists already aware of the platform, Smith says. “A lot of artists are excited when they see what we have to offer and [are] excited about the possibilities. A lot of them are really sharing the need that they have with their practice — as far as awareness, income, and being able to freely practice their art.”

Historically, the city’s reliance on promoting its culture for tourism has led to abuse and manipulation of culture bearers, mainly people of color, by outside interests, which is something which Bowler, who is white, is acutely aware of. “I think it starts with listening. This city has moved me is such a way that the best way that I know how is to just listen and try to build something with people and collaborate on a project that adds value to the people who create the culture.

So I think the suspicion and the difficulty and tension is there because things have happened in the past that haven’t been equitable. And so moving forward we’re trying to listen and approach each interaction — each iteration– with that in mind.”

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You can find more about Culturalyst by visiting their website or Facebook page.

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