Building a performing arts website on no or close to no budget

While I have developed websites from scratch, when I developed a new website for Austin Lyric Opera, I chose to go with a vendor. I needed the help, the service and the security. After all, my job was marketing director, and not web developer, and the season brochure still needed to get produced and the hall still needed to rescaled and re-priced.

Since October 2011, I have been a board member of Chorus Austin. I offered my services to develop a new website. This time, I did not have the financial resources to go with a vendor. All I had was my time and my knowledge and know-how.

My objectives were similar to the redevelopment of the Austin Lyric Opera website: driving conversions, being able to measure, customizable and easily manageable. In addition, a couple of things needed to happen:

  • Chorus members needed a guarded section and a login
  • Patrons needed to donate and buy tickets or merchandise directly on the site (events are general admission; payments processed through PayPal); an ecommerce/shopping cart system needed to be set up.

I had proposed a rough navigation structure, with the theme functionality partially dictating it, and other members provided the site copy. While I donated my time, there were still some minor expenses. I spent roughly 120 hours (included in this was time learning about the theme, the shopping cart system, and creating some of the visual elements). Here are the elements that went into the site functionality and their costs (warning, some of it might be a tad technical):

Premium Theme

Genesis framework

There are limits to what you can do with a free WordPress theme. Customizing a free theme can be time consuming and not update friendly. Premium themes can be very affordable and can offer a range of added features. After some research, I opted for StudioPress’s Genesis framework and picked the Associate child theme. I did very little customization and the end result mirrors the demo site closely; it is a fairly standard out-of-the-box version. Cost: $79.95

(I was so pleased, I in fact later upgraded this blog to a Genesis theme!)


Events Calendar Pro

Modern Tribe’s Events Calendar Pro does not offer the great features of Venture’s proprietary events manager, but I could make it work with some customization (mostly customized the event page template; see example) and more importantly it does integrate nicely with the Genesis framework. I’m particularly happy how it works well with using an event’s featured image (regular setting in the Events Calendar custom post type) as a home page slider image (Genesis allows the slider to draw from custom post types). Cost: $50.

Gravity Forms

The main reason I needed the Gravity Forms plugin was for integration with Woocommerce and being able to set up a donation page with functionality such as custom donation amount and a dedication message or special requests. Later, this plugin can also serve handy to create customizable subscription packages (with functions such as “If option A is picked, then display $XX price” or “If option B is picked, only then allow option D as an additional order”). In addition, it is good to have survey and form capabilities on your website. Gravity Forms offers a world of possibilities. Cost: $39


The shopping cart and ecommerce functionality was of major importance on this site. Not having previous experience setting up shopping carts, Woocommerce offered good documentation and was easy to install and set up. I made a couple of customizations in functionality and in the CSS rendering. Because Woocommerce is a product by Woothemes, it naturally works best with themes by that company. I later found—but have not yet installed—a plugin for integrating Woocommerce with a Genesis framework (Genesis Connect for Woocommerce). Cost: Free.

Gravity Forms Add-ons (Woocommerce extension)

As mentioned, I installed Gravity Forms primarily for the donation capabilities. With this Woocommerce Gravity Forms extension, you can customize donation pages where this would not be possible in a vanilla Woocommerce installation (unless you’re happy with only giving your patrons fixed options like $5, $10 and $25). Cost: $35

Order/Customer CSV Export (Woocommerce extension)

Manually tallying customer orders is painstaking. This extension allows you to download the data in one fell swoop in a CSV document. Very handy for keeping track of sales in a spreadsheet and reporting to others. Cost: $35.


Chorus Austin wanted a singers’ portal, a members’ area. I needed to have functionality where Chorus members could register for access to information and calendars hidden from public view. In addition, members can pay their dues and buy scores (set up through a non-public, non-indexed Woocommerce product); members can change their profile settings and password and recover their username and password. Administrators can manage users and approve registrations and the plugin is based on WordPress’ “User” functionality, but the great thing about this plugin is that it integrates login functions on pages, rather than having to rely on the standard admin login screen. Cost: Free.

MediaElement.js – HTML5 Audio and Video

I needed a simple player for embedding audio and video files. I found this particular plugin visually clean, easy for patrons and easy to implement with short codes. Cost: Free.


Of course other organizations might require other functions and other plugins. Some might work with a third-party ticketing solution and won’t need an integrated shopping cart (although I think it looks totally cool and professional to have your own!). You can build a website with WordPress completely free (not counting hosting and domain name costs, which can start as low as about $100 a year), but free is perhaps somewhat misleading considering the tremendous time commitment I made (admitting that more skilled WordPress gurus could have probably set it up in half the time). All things considered, total actual cost: $238.95

Optional additions

Here’s what’s on my wish list:

PayPal Pro (Woocommerce extension)

For a complete integration, rather than redirecting to PayPal, this extension allows direct credit card information input in the shopping cart check out, ensuring a seamless a professional look. Cost: $50. Requires a valid SSL Certificate on your website (~$99 a year) and a PayPal Pro merchant account ($30 a month).

Facebook Tab (Woocommerce extension)

Can’t wait to try this out. Generally, not even the largest arts organizations have a Facebook shopping cart integration. If it works like it says it will, this simple solution can really make other arts organizations see green with envy. Cost: $35. Requires a valid SSL Certificate on your website (~$99 a year).

Are you looking to build a new website for your performing arts organization? I might be able to help. Send me a note and let’s talk.

4 thoughts on “Building a performing arts website on no or close to no budget”

    • Thanks for the feedback.

      The group was already working with PayPal, so I worked with that existing set up. Seems like Stripe is something that could be a good alternative. On first glance, it does look like more web/API developer skills are needed than with PayPal, but I could be wrong (as I wrote, I didn’t have much prior experience setting up an ecommerce site). I’d also have to learn more about its security and customer service.

      While I agree that Facebook is not the most effective channel for sales; the Facebook integration is $35. That’s nothing and could be earned back with just a few tickets sold. So then the question becomes, why not?

      And on engagement on Facebook. I’ve found it to be a benefit to arts organizations. Sure, not as effective in terms of sales as email marketing, but why compare apples with oranges? And saying that you already engage with patrons in the theater really misses the point.

  1. This is a terrific overview Marc, Kudos. As an option to Genesis, I’d recommend folks compare and contrast with something from WooThemes, which ultimately integrates the Woo-Commerce functionality. Good options to consider at Woo have available woo-commerce child themes and are built atop Woo’s responsive design platform..

    Options that don’t have too high of a learning curve for setting up are Canvas, Simplicity, Merchant, and Buro. Each one has a woo-commerce child theme and basic themes cost $70 for three so you can pick your primary and woo-commerce child themes plus one more. They also have excellent documentation and support.

    Full disclosure: I do *not* work for Woo but I do use their themes a great deal. I also use their platform for building custom themes etc. I simply like the company and their work 🙂

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