In ordinary times, in the ordinary places of North America, emerging artists come and go like the passing seasons. If you’re a talented young video artist, say, living in Dubuque and gaining regional attention, or if you’re an edgy photographer who has won a big grant award in Baltimore, what you do, nine times out of ten, is move away. You take your potentially fleeting cultural capital and attempt to parlay it into a big-time career by going to the Big City. For most, this means escaping to New York, but it can also mean (if your art is more media-driven) going to L.A. or, if you're more intrepid and enterprising, Berlin or London. For years, the story of most smaller-market art communities—such as Minneapolis, Vancouver, Seattle (on and off), Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Portland, etc.—has often been more about who has left the scene than who remains behind.
This peculiar dynamic in art is due to the economic realities of art-making. That is, first and foremost, the market for selling art is a constant buyer's market. Because of the intrinsic appeal of the creative life (as well as other economic realities explained below), there will always be a plentiful supply of people wanting to be artists and never enough people to purchase what artists make. A 2001 Rand research brief reported that between 1970 and 1980, the number of self-identified artists in the U.S. doubled to 1.6 million, even though the U.S. population grew only about 11 percent over the same period. “Growth [in the number of artists] is not a sign that things have gotten better,” wrote Bill Ivey in his study of the business of the arts, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (2010). “Once entry into a creative profession has been secured, the challenges of piecing together enough income to sustain a quality of life commensurate with education or training become apparent. Worrisome trends in employment and compensation cut across the creative professions.” As a result of this dearth of opportunity and support, according to Ivey, “artists must practice where the action is, in big cities where the cost of housing and work space outstrips the financial resources of all but the most successful.”
In other words, the artistic draw of the Big City is also the result of another strange facet of the economics of art: It attracts, in a very limited way, very Big Money. Most art markets—in visual art in particular, but also in music, filmmaking, and so on—are essentially what economists call a “winner-take-all” economy. Meaning, for the very few who rise to the top of the market the payoffs are astronomical. But for those who don't rise up, income remains scarce. A few years ago, for example, the British artist Damien Hirst was selling paintings for more than $1 million apiece, and his steel glass pill cabinet installation piece Where There’s a Will There’s a Way sold for $7.15 million. And while artists are often conflicted about the influence of money on art—Hirst himself once said: “Money complicates everything. I have a genuine belief that art is a more powerful currency than money—that’s the romantic feeling that an artist has. But you start to have this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful”—very few artists would ever turn down a big paycheck for one of their works, nor would they propose spreading the paycheck around to support the activities of their peers.
Unfair as the art market is to the vast majority of artists, sustained economic malaise can be a great leveler. Poor times—like the ones we’ve been living through since 2008—can flatten the economic landscape, diminishing the advantages of living in the Big City in relation to the disadvantages of the monetary and personal/social costs. A recent, widely circulated story by Crain’s New York business website described the struggles that New York artists have been facing over the past several years: Increasing rents, heightened urban pressures, disappearing jobs, loss of sales, diminishing income, and the like. Because of these factors, a recent survey by the New York Foundation for the Arts found that 43 percent of New York’s artists expected their annual income to drop by 26 percent to 50 percent over the next six months, and 11 percent believed they would have to leave New York within six months. “In New York, you have so much pressure to survive,” one musician and composer said, “you don't even know what you did that day.” As a result, the report suggested, artists are fleeing the once-alluring Big Cities and giving smaller, more cost-effective American cities a try.
At the same time, a recently released report on the creative sectors in Los Angeles told much the same story. The report, conducted by the Los Angeles Country Economic Development Corp., found that the ten local creative industries it surveyed saw a 7 percent decline in overall income and a net loss of nearly 40,000 jobs. And while the report had no exact numbers regarding a potential artist exodus from Los Angeles, it’s easy to speculate, based on these numbers, that economic and other pressures on the local artist community will only continue, as in New York, to mount across the region.
So, with artists suffering in the two largest American cultural Meccas, where is a struggling artist to go? Where can artists find arms welcoming enough to provide a chance to sustain their careers? Well, as it happens, perhaps sensing an opportunity in the leveled fields of the current economy several of America’s bleakest, and most economically depressed, cities—Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland, among others—have begun making their case to become the next American artistic epicenter. All of these places have begun offering incentives like housing allowances (or otherwise cheap housing options), grants and other competitive awards, and other support to artists, even as they promise at least some of the cultural amenities—museums, arts events, and the like—that one can find in the Big Cities.
It will take a few years until we know for certain whether these smaller cities’ efforts will reap the cultural rewards that both urban planners and artists-on-the-make are desperate to harvest. Until things shake out, then, art lovers everywhere owe it to themselves to appreciate the art in their cities while they still can. Otherwise you never know: Next time you get around to looking for your favorite local artists, they may well be gone.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.