The Best Cities for Artists
Sir Peter Bazalgette, former Chair of the Arts Council England, put the arts in context this way: “Imagine society without the civilizing influence of the arts, and you’ll have to strip out what is most pleasurable in life.”
There’s a strong connection among the arts, cultural engagement and education, and art has even been linked to economic performance. Art, it can be argued, is essential for the well-being of society.
Yet, the reality for most artists is that they don’t earn much money from their creativity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2017, fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators, earned a mean annual wage of $57,520. Independent artists, writers and performers earned a mean annual wage of slightly less, $57,110.
Often artists need to have second jobs. They also need like-minded communities in which to make their art, so they usually don’t want to live far outside urban environments.
While cities like New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris and Tokyo come to mind when thinking of cities where the arts flourish, these places have all become fairly expensive in terms of living costs.
With the dual requirements of a city environment offering a lower cost of living, and a flourishing arts scene, we’ve put together a list of some of the best and cheaper places for creatives to live in the U.S. and around the world.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Median home value: $380,000 (all median home values via Zillow)
Three artists with a Santa Fe connection: Painter Paul Burlin, filmmaker-fashion designer Tom Ford, painter Georgia O’Keeffe
What artists should know: Artists and writers have been drawn to this small New Mexico city since the 1920s, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe made it famous when she settled here on a ranch to paint against the stark desert landscape and wide-open skies.
Santa Fe is home to more than 250 galleries, the 100-year-old New Mexico Museum of Art, the third-largest art market in the country, Indian and Spanish markets, the Museum of International Folk Art and several smaller art museums, as well as the SITE Santa Fe International Biennial.
The Santa Fe Art Institute offers residencies and fellowships to both artists and writers. The Santa Fe Institute (science research and education) offers scholarships to non-fiction authors.
The world-famous Santa Fe Opera draws music lovers from all over the globe. The city is even home to a growing movie industry.
Monthly rents for a studio apartment start at about $800 outside the center of town.
Median home value: $142,400
Three artists with a Cincinnati connection: Actress Rosemary Clooney, writer Curtis Sittenfeld, musical group The National
What artists should know: This mid-sized city has the arts scene of a larger city. The Aronoff Center for the Arts is home to the Weston Arts Gallery, Cincinnati Opera and more.
Cincinnati’s annual Overture Awards seek out new talent in writing, music, dance and visual arts by awarding scholarships.
The city's also home to the Cincinnati Art Museum and Contemporary Art Center. The Brazee Street Studios is a former tool factory turned into a busy arts center, with artist studios, classes and a gallery for resident artists.
One-bedroom apartments rents start at $570 per month.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Median home value: $370,600
Three artists with an Ann Arbor connection: Filmmaker Ken Burns, surrealist Gerome Kamrowski, painter Benjamin McCready
What artists should know: Lying along the Huron River, Ann Arbor has acres of parks and open spaces, offering a vibrant outdoor life in warmer months. Walking, running and biking trails abound.
The city's home to the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Art Center and the STAMPS School of Art and Design, which has a gallery reserved for student exhibitions. The University of Michigan Museum of Art is also based here. Artist organizations such as the Guild of Artists and Artisans sponsor of an annual street art fair, and Ann Arbor Women Artists ensure support and networking for local artists.
According to SmartAsset, Ann Arbor is one of the top ten cities in the country for book lovers and writers. Ann Arbor features frequent live readings, author events and book clubs.
Rent for one-bedroom apartments (outside the city center) start at about $990 per month and house prices are well below the national average.
Median home value: $304,900
Three artists with a Tacoma connection: Glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, cartoonist Gary Larson, actress Pamela Reed
What artists should know: Home to the Northwest College of Art and Design, as well as the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, this city of just over 200,000 people has a strong commitment to the arts.
In 2016, the city launched ArtFull Tacoma, a plan designed to “help grow the city’s economy by promoting its creative builders and makers, and creating spaces for art in every neighborhood,” Rachel Cardwell of the Tacoma Arts Commission told the Tacoma News Tribune.
Etsy, the online global crafts marketplace, named Tacoma an Etsy Maker City, recognizing the importance of artisans and craftspeople to the city’s economy.
Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass are also based here, and the small city is full of public art projects, museums and galleries.
Rents for two-bedroom houses start at $950 per month and one-bedroom apartments start around $700 per month.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Median home value: $222,500
Three artists with a Charlotte connection: Writer Carson McCullers, actress Sharon Lawrence, actor Skeet Ulrich
What artists should know: Charlotte has the flourishing arts scene you would expect from a large city, but lower rents keep it affordable. Charlotte offers culture lovers everything from ballet to theatre, opera to museums, and galleries to classical music.
Charlotte is also home to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museums and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The city’s Arts and Science Council ensures that funding and public art remains a priority in Charlotte.
Two-bedroom rental houses around Charlotte start at $850 monthly.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Median home value: $219,900
Three artists with a St. Petersburg connection: Actress Angela Bassett, writer Jack Kerouac, sculpture-installation artist Babs Reingold
What artists should know: With beaches and year-round sunshine, St. Petersburg has long been popular as a place to retire, but the city’s population is now getting younger, thanks to a lower cost of living. American Style magazine ranked St. Petersburg as one of its 25 mid-sized places to live in the U.S. ArtPlace America also selected the coastal city as one of the best places for artists to live.
The city features the Morean Arts Center, The James Museum of Western Art, the American Arts & Crafts Museum, and the Salvador Dali Museum, containing the largest collection of the artist’s work outside Europe. Both the Chihuly Collection, dedicated to glass sculpture, and a space for glass artists called the Glass Studio, highlight the city’s artisanal glass community. City festivals include the annual Bluesfest and the Mainsail Art Festival. The city also has seven separate districts for artists to live and work that are regularly open to the public for art walks.
The Florida Orchestra, St. Petersburg Opera Company and several theatre groups are among the performing arts.
Rents in the area start at $495 for a studio or $680 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Median home value: $146,000
Three artists with a Chattanooga connection: Actor Samuel L. Jackson, singer Bessie Smith, singer-songwriter Usher
What artists should know: The Environmental Protection Agency once called Chattanooga one the dirtiest cities in America, but that’s no longer the case. The city has reinvented itself with an arts focus.
The city now features an art museum, a symphony, ballet company and theater center, as well as funding for arts-based start-ups, art in public spaces and a summer music festival. The ArtsMove program offers financial incentives to artists willing to relocate and settle in certain areas of the city.
Chattanooga also has a Writers Guild that offers regular workshops, as well as an annual Readers and Writers Fair.
With one-bedroom townhouse rentals starting at $450 per month, and two-bedroom houses at $625, Chattanooga is quite affordable.
Median home value: $424,700
Three artists with a Denver connection: Actress Hattie McDaniel, poet Neal Cassady, musical group The Lumineers
What artists should know: Nestled between the Great Plains and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Denver offers a thriving performing- and fine-arts scene, and numerous centers with live theater, dance, opera and classical music.
Denver's home to the Colorado Symphony, the region’s only full-time professional orchestra, and boasts a happening live music scene, with everything from jazz to rock to country.
The Mile High City has a long tradition of street art and includes seven separate neighborhood art districts that hold a First Friday Art Walk each month. Denver is also home to numerous museums, including the Denver Art Museum and the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.
A vibrant year-round outdoor city, Denver features miles of trails, parks, green spaces and a popular bike-sharing program. Given Denver’s efficient public transportation system, you don’t need a car to live here.
Denver rentals run about $1,590 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.
While that’s one of the most expensive rental rates on our list, it’s about half the rental costs for a similar unit in New York City and about a third that of San Francisco.
Median home value: $120,200
Three artists with a Baltimore connection: Composer Philip Glass, filmmaker John Waters, writer Laura Lippman
What artists should know: Baltimore, aka Charm City, is a large city that still feels like a small town. The city’s art schools include the Baltimore Academy of Illustration, Maryland Institute College of Art, the Schuler School of Fine Art and the Baltimore School for the Arts. The city's also home to museums and galleries, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the American Visionary Art Museum and the Maryland Art Place. The former Bromo Seltzer Tower building has been turned into studio spaces for both visual artists and writers.
Bmore Art, an award-winning community-based art magazine documents the Baltimore art scene daily. The city has three designated arts districts that open regularly to the public, and it hosts an annual writer’s conference. There's also a city-wide writers in the school program.
In September, the Baltimore’s Little Italy hosts the Madonnari Arts Festival celebrating the Italian tradition of street paintings. The free annual Artscape Festival in July is the largest of its kind in the country. Street artists have their own canvases at Graffiti Alley and Graffiti Warehouse, and the Open Walls project imports street artists from around the world to decorate public spaces.
Music and theatre lovers can enjoy the resident Shakespeare Company, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera Baltimore and several live theater companies.
With rents starting under $400 per month, Baltimore can be an affordable place to live.
Looking for a different culture to kick-start your creativity? Here are five cities across Europe, North America and the Caribbean with incredible art scenes and relative affordability.
Population: 1.7 million
Three artists with a Montreal connection: Singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen, musical group Arcade Fire, sculptor David Altmejd
What artists should know: One of the world’s most livable cities also has a dynamic arts scene.
The city houses some of the best art galleries and art museums in North America, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Contemporary Art Museum of Montreal. In summer, the city offers non-stop festivals: dance, music, art, jazz, circus, anime, theater and more. Known for its street and public space art, Montreal also features an annual Mural Festival.
Numerous writers and performing artists call the city theirs, including some of Canada’s top designers and bands. The literary scene's also very active. Concordia University offers a Writers Read series allowing contemporary authors to read from their books, as well as a Creative Writing Program. The Quebec Writers’ Federation offers workshops and literary prizes, and nurtures new talent through its mentoring program.
While French is the official language of Montreal’s province, Quebec, English is widely spoken.
Montreal is very affordable for a large North American city, and you need about $25,000 a year to live here comfortably, according to one local analysis.
Three artists with a Lisbon connection: Painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, poet Fernando Pessoa, painter Francisco de Holanda
What artists should know: Lisbon is one of Europe’s emerging art cities. New galleries are constantly opening, international dealers are scouting artists, and numerous artists are moving to this seaside city for the low rents and affordable studio space.
Lisbon offers a mild, sunny climate, sandy beaches, stunning sea views, museums with impressive art collections, a contained city center and picturesque historic buildings. In addition to galleries and museums, art thrives in public spaces and the arts scene in Lisbon has a reputation for being “open, friendly and unpretentious.”
Institutions such as The Barber Shop, Bar Irreal and The Hanger offer artists the space for talks, lectures, performances, exhibitions and more. The Village Underground is an artist hub, networking and co-working space, built from shipping containers and old buses.
For writers, Lisbon offers a bookshop and reading culture to rival any other European capital, as well as the annual literary Festival Silencio.
Portugal’s health care system is top-notch and free for residents. Portugal makes it easy for anyone to establish residency here, and English is widely spoken. Studio rentals start about $225 per month and couples can live comfortably on about $1,700 per month.
Population: 1.6 million
Three artists with a Barcelona connection: Architect Antoni Gaudí, painter Joan Miró, actor Jordi Mollà
What artists should know: Barcelona is a city synonymous with such great artists as Joan Miró and Antoni Gaudí, who designed the Sagrada Família cathedral and used city neighborhoods as the backdrop for his iconic design and architectural works.
Barcelona's home to numerous art museums, including the Museu Picasso and Fundacio Joan Miró, which offer cultural events and rotating exhibitions of contemporary work, dozens of art galleries and a lively street art scene.
The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art is one of many museums in the city; it focuses on art, design and architecture.
Barcelona also hosts numerous annual music festivals, including jazz and electronic music. For writers, the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona holds a biennial celebration of the written word, the Kosmopolis. The CCCB sponsors live events, exhibitions and research on contemporary culture across creative disciplines.
ShBarcelona has a cost of living calculator. Costs start around $1,320 per month.
Mexico City, Mexico
Population: 8.8 million
Three artists with a Mexico City connection: Painter Diego Rivera, painter Frida Kahlo, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón
What artists should know: Mexico City is undergoing a cultural revival, with flourishing arts, design and architecture scenes.
Galleries and art spaces are sprouting throughout the city. A local independent art scene, accepting of foreign artists, has thrived here since the 1990s, and it led to the creation of an independent art school (SOMA), and co-working and networking spaces for artists. Mexico City offers numerous artist-in-residence programs as well, ranging from visual arts to research.
Mexico City is home to museums celebrating the talents of its best-known art couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, not to mention the Casa Azul house-turned-museum where the couple lived and worked.
Mexico City's also home to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (performing arts), two contemporary art museums, the Modern Art Museum, and a number of smaller museums and art galleries.
The city hosts the annual Material Art Fair, showcasing contemporary works, and Zona Maco, the biggest art fair in Latin America.
Mexico City has a long literary tradition, having produced writers Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. The prestigious San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival takes place nearby.
While traffic snarls and pollution are issues here, you can live comfortably in Mexico City for about $1,000 a month, including health insurance.
Population: 2.1 million
Three artists with a Havana connection: Reynier Leyva Novo, Carlos Garaicoa, Ernest Hemingway
What artists should know: Lonely Planet recently called Havana “one of the world’s great new art cities.”
Contemporary art galleries, an explosion of street art, and a multi-purpose art-and-performing-arts space (Fabrica del Arte Cubano) and art collective (Enguayabera) enrich an art scene that dates back to the 19th century.
Havana’s also home to the Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, Latin America’s oldest art school. The city hosts annual international guitar, theater, contemporary music, ballet, jazz and film festivals, as well as an art biennial.
Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for many years, writing “The Old Man and The Sea” and “Islands in the Stream,” among other works.
One-bedroom apartments in Havana are around $420 per month in the city center and drop to as low as $85 elsewhere.
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