We recently covered the best cities for people who want to work in tech. But what if you want to work in the arts? Just as San Francisco is a popular but expensive destination for coders, New York has long been the dream for artistic types. However, even established artists like Patti Smith and David Byrne have said the dream is over: young artists can’t afford NYC anymore.
So where should aspiring artists go instead to find community, inspiration, and cheap enough rent that they don’t have to work all the time and can focus on their craft?
We’ve got an idea—five, in fact. Here are the best cities for artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers.
Average monthly rent: $952
Most people associate Lancaster County with the Amish, but you won’t find horse and buggies in the city itself. What you will find is a vibrant arts scene with a welcoming attitude toward young artists.
Hawa Lassanah, an artist, photographer, and executive director of The Discerning Eye Center for the Arts says that, after moving to Lancaster to attend college, she realized it was the perfect place to build an artistic life.
“First and foremost, it’s an affordable place to live. Downtown is the creative class: entrepreneurs, artists, burgeoning tech.” Lassanah says. “You can have one job, like waitstaff, and live here, play here.”
In addition, Lassanah says the influence of the Amish makes Lancaster more artist-friendly.
“It’s always been a DIY place to live,” she says. “You do it yourself, you make it yourself.” This is the impulse of all artists.
In addition, she says, “There’s a lot going on.” Lassanah’s own search for community led her to create DECA as a place for artists of all levels to work, gather, have shows, and connect with others.
Lancaster’s other creative credentials include:
- It’s Modern Art is a design studio and arts space that hosts events across a range of mediums.
- Creative Works of Lancaster organizes artistic performances and events in venues all over the city.
- Pennsylvania College of Art and Design features exhibitions and artist lectures that are free and open to the public.
- There’s a First Friday “arts extravaganza” every month featuring gallery exhibitions, performances, and other creative events.
Average monthly rent: $1,696
While rents have been rising in Minneapolis over the last few years, you can still find an affordable apartment with a roommate or two. If you do, you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful, artistically fertile city that Prince called home.
To find out what Minneapolis has to offer aspiring artists, I talked to writer and English teacher Abbi Dion. In addition to traditional assets like galleries and studios, Minneapolis has many free or nearly free resources where young artists can find inspiration, education and community. Abbi’s favorite places include:
- Park Siding Park has won awards for its landscape design. Enjoy the shade in summertime and find a good spot to write, strum your guitar, or sketch the scenery.
- The Minneapolis Institute of Art offers free membership, through which you can visit its permanent collection as often as you like.
- Budding musicians will swoon over the Anna M. Heilmaier Piano Room at the Minneapolis Central Library. You can play the Mason & Hamlin seven-foot grand piano for free for up to an hour at a time with an advance reservation.
- For aspiring artists who are also parents, Sovereign Grounds Coffeehouse has an indoor playground so you can get a little work done while your kids play.
Here are a few more reasons to move to Minneapolis:
- Intermedia Arts, a “multidisciplinary, multicultural arts organization.”
- Art-A-Whirl, an annual tour of artist studios and galleries.
- Ananya Dance Theatre is “the leading creator of Contemporary Indian American Dance in the global arts and social justice movement.”
Average monthly rent: $1,206
Durham is part, along with Raleigh and Chapel Hill, of the famed research triangle in North Carolina, an area which, in spite of its rapid growth, has preserved an artistic and literary culture. If you don’t believe me, try finding a town in the area that doesn’t have a bookstore. The metro area’s other artistic highlights include:
Live music venues
Chapel Hill was well-known as an incubator of a thriving punk/underground music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Even though punk is now almost a veteran of the “underground,” the ethos remains in places such as Local 506 and The Cave.
Nearby Carrboro has The Cat’s Cradle, which hosts a wide variety of national acts. Durham is also home to Merge Records, the famed record label founded by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, which has released albums from Arcade Fire, Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Magnetic Fields.
Galleries and performance spaces
Downtown Durham is home to several hybrid art gallery/performance space/installation spaces. One of particular note is the Carrack, which has frequent events and gives emerging and marginalized artists and musicians a venue for expression.
The writerly community of Hillsborough
Hillsborough advertises itself as a “community of writers,” but it would be more accurate to state that the quirky vibe of the town, the largely affordable rents, and its natural beauty afford one an optimal space for creating. Writers Alan Gurganus, Annie Dillard, and Jill McCorkle, have called Hillsborough home.
There are also active writers’ groups in Hillsborough should you desire that kind of community.
Average monthly rent: $876
Columbus is a college town—home to The Ohio State University—and college towns often have an intellectual and artsy vibe. But unlike pricier college towns such as Princeton, Columbus is affordable both for the tenured professor and the recent art school grad.
When I visited the city a few years ago, I met a boutique owner who’d moved there from Manhattan. She said she couldn’t afford to pursue her dream in New York, but in Columbus it was possible. Best of all, Columbus is a pretty town with an established arts scene.
Ohio State is an enormous university, with many established arts programs, including in creative writing, dance, and sculpture. The Wexner Center For The Arts, a museum on campus, has cool and offbeat exhibits, and often shows classic and arthouse films. This past spring, the Wexner (known as the Wex) brought indie filmmaker Whit Stillman to Columbus, and gave an early screening of his latest film, Love and Friendship.
Artists looking for inspiration will find plenty of resources in Columbus.
The Gateway Film Center, south of OSU’s campus, shows first-run movies in addition to arthouse flicks and older classics. Each October, they host Hitchcocktober, a film series highlighting the master of suspense.
For the comics fan or aspiring graphic artists, there’s the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at OSU, which is home to a vast collection of old comics as well as regular exhibits on famous artists like Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterson.
The city also offers plenty of coffee shops for aspiring artists to ply their trade while caffeinating: Cafe Kerouac, near campus; Cafe Impero, in the Short North; Stauf’s in Grandview; and Cup O’ Joe’s at locations all over the city.
The Columbus Idea Foundry is a membership-based “community workshop, learning center, and creative space” where you can use a range of traditional and high-tech tools to make art and other things.
Average monthly rent: $958
To spur your creativity, why not take a chance on a city known as one of the great creative engines in a completely different way—the birthplace of the automobile.
Since its prosperous beginning, Detroit has charted a turbulent course including reorganization of its municipal debt, the halving of its population, and modern investments by companies such as Quicken Loans, nonprofits, and enterprising individuals with an interest in preserving—and advancing—the city and its culture.
Detroit lures artists attracted to the potential of its backstory as well as its future. Many relocate from areas where the cost of living has become prohibitive. Here are some of the resources writers, visual artists, and other creative types will find in Detroit:
This organization provides a twist on the concept of the writer’s residency by simply giving writers a free house to work in, forever. To date, four writers have gained homes from the program. Their web site also provides links to low-cost homes that have been rehabilitated as part of the Detroit Land Bank Authority program.
Heidelberg project/public art:
The evolving installation art piece started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton to battle street blight by filling the vacant lots of two blocks of Heidelberg Street with different art and found objects is being dismantled and evolving into what Guyton calls “Heidelberg 3.0”. However, Detroit’s public art scene is thriving and has drawn the attention of many outside publications and bloggers. Some highlights include the murals of Mexicantown and the Lincoln Street Art Park.
For those looking for an overview of current events in the Detroit art community, Art Detroit now provides an excellent overview and also details on every month’s “Second Saturday.”
As cities of all sizes have recognized the importance of the arts, today’s aspiring artist will be welcome just about anywhere. But maintaining a life to devoted to art is difficult, requiring sacrifices that people who are more traditionally career-oriented often don’t have to make. That’s why these five cities are among the best places for artists to make a living. They’re affordable and have many resources for young artists to find support, community, and places to share their work with the public.
For more ideas on places to call home, check out “The 20 Best Cities in America To Be Young, Broke, and Single.” Did we leave your favorite city off the list? Tell us which places you consider most welcoming to aspiring artists.