New York City for Publishing. Los Angeles for Film. Milan and Paris for fashion. You can even say Seattle for Gaming. These are mecca cities in their fields. Artists at every stage of their career flock to them to either go to Art School, or to Break In, or to Level Up their career. At the same time, many artists choose the slower, and cheaper, life away from these international hubs. There’s never going to be a definitive answer to this debate, it’s a matter of opinion and a lifestyle choice, yet the question never dies: Do Artists Have to Move to a “Big City” to “Make It”?
This is a question artists debate constantly in many forms, at many stages in their career. As an Art Director in Publishing in NYC, I get asked very often if I thought moving to NYC was mandatory, or advised, or even helpful to someone’s art career. Though it’s not a new question, I feel like the fires of debate are fanned by the new omnipresence of social media—which always seems to be showing you everything awesome everyone else is doing. Without you. It’s hard not to feel like you’re missing out.
I’m spoiled. I’m a native New Yorker, child of native New Yorkers, actually born in Manhattan. I’ve only ever lived in New York City and Boston. I went to Boston University for two years (Pre-Med, long story), but as soon as I switched to Graphic Design I came scurrying right back home to go to SVA. I even got to save money by commuting from home. I have often said that I owe my career to physical networking — the fact that SVA Design teachers mostly are working professionals, and hire right out of their classes. Every art job I had up until my present post at Orbit I got through an SVA teacher. Perry Ellis, then MTV, then a studio intern for Christoph Niemann and Nicholas Blechman, then St, Martin’s Press/Picador Books, then Doubleday/Broadway—all working directly for my teachers or direct referrals from teachers. My job at Orbit didn’t come to me thru a teacher—it came to me through a fellow alumni. That’s a ridiculous string of luck, and a whole lot of local networking.
You’d think I’d be telling everyone that they must up and move to the city immediately, but it’s not that black and white. Every advantage you gain by being in a city you pay for, and the same is true for every advantage in the “country”. Like everything else in creating a career as an artist, it’s about work, and playing to your strengths. Some artists will do better in a city, and some will thrive in the country. Which are you?
Let’s look a the 3 most-often cited Advantages of Being in The Big City:
Networking: The random opportunities and chance meetings of physical networking have made many a career. Although I stand by my belief that as an Art Director, I choose artists by their art, not whether I know them, the fact is I remember artists I have met more easily, and thus remember their art more readily. I don’t pick artists more frequently because we socialize, but often in socializing I get to know more about an artist that sometimes reveals a dream of doing a zombie portrait, and the next time I have a zombie book on my desk I will remember that. However, these conversations happen even more frequently at conventions like Spectrum Live and Illuxcon. Neither of which happen in a hub city for art. If you don’t live in a big city, some of the money you save on rent could be put towards traveling to cons and seminars, evening the playing field tremendously.
Museums & Resources: Even though small local museums in small towns are some of my favorite museums (Brandywine shoutout!) There’s no beating the sheer volume of museums in big cities. And artist organizations like the Society of Illustrators and the Type Director’s Club are very hard to appreciate if you’re not coming to town for events. But again, there’s a great deal to be said for saving money on rent to travel to museums. And the internet is the biggest museum in the world. I love to go to the Met Armor Room to recharge my batteries after working on too much epic fantasy, but I do 99% of my research and find a great deal of my inspiration online. (Pinterest anyone?)
Artist Community: I think a huge help in an artist’s career is to be challenged, critiqued, and inspired by their peers. And you are going to find the highest density of the most competitive artists in a hub city. Collaborations happen more naturally. Sketch nights are more frequent and more densely populated. There are more gallery openings and events. But however charmed random meetings can be at such things, internet-based communities are much more targeted. Crit groups exist for every type of art and every skill level on Facebook. Team Awesome is one of my favorites. I was just poking around an animation art crit group that had over 5,000 members! You’re not going to get that kind of targeted turnout at any event in Manhattan. And in addition, there’s live artist communities everywhere. There’s Dr. Sketchys and live drawing nights pretty much everywhere too. There are galleries in every town. And small communities can often be much more nurturing. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? Again, that’s going to be more about your personality than your art.
So there’s a common theme here, and it is critical to see it, and look at it through the lens of your own strengths and personality. And I am massively simplifying but here’s the gist: If you are in a big city, opportunities happen to you. If you are in the country you have to work harder to make your opportunities. There is no opportunity living in a city will give you that can’t be achieved long-distance. But it might take more planning, and more work.
You’re paying either way, no surprise there. Either you’re paying for cost of living, eating ramen, living with 5 roommates, and vicious commute lengths OR you’re paying in time, and social media effort, and traveling to networking opportunities. If you are an extrovert who loves being surrounded by crowds and has no trouble talking up perfect strangers, then maybe the city is the best atmosphere for you. If you crave solitude and space and would rather have a big house than a tiny apartment then head to someplace where the cost of living is low and the space is plentiful. Either way, you’re paying your dues.
Here’s a test: No matter where you live, there is a coffee shop nearby. Take your laptop or sketchbook and go sit at a table all day and try to get work done. If you are energized by being surrounded by people, genuinely enjoy the random conversations that will occur, and have no problem focusing and getting work done, then you might be suited to a city. If you can’t get into a groove, are irritated by the constant interruptions, and find yourself dying to go home to your studio, set up exactly how you like it with no one to watch, then you might be better suited to the country. Again, I oversimplify—people are often both of the above at different times—but it’s a start.
And remember: In the realm of social media, everyone is geographically equal. And our industry relies more and more heavily on social media every day.
And thank you to all the artists I texted at 1am when I was trying to finish this post. I didn’t get a chance to quote you directly, but thank you for the late nite weigh-ins!