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In our data-obsessed era, we tend to think that any question can be solved by just looking at statistics, indexes, or rankings — even when it comes to something as elusive as the best place to find artistic inspiration.
The educational website WorldWideLearn recently culled data from the American Community Survey and the Local Arts Index to rank the 15 most creatively inspiring cities in the United States for aspiring young artists and art students. The results are mostly predictable — New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco make up the top five — though there are a few curveballs. Few people think of Lexington, Kentucky (which came in sixth) or Anchorage, Alaska (seventh) when considering locales particularly conducive to art studies.
The report’s authors ascribed scores to cities populated by 300,000 or more people according to seven basic metrics that presumably make for an inspiring environment: percentage of the population in college or graduate school; percentage of the population aged 18–34; art dealers per 100,000 people; performing arts companies in the metropolitan area per 100,000 people; museums per 100,000 people, fine arts schools in the metropolitan area per 100,000; and businesses classified in the “creative industry” sector per 100,000 people.
Boston ranked first for its large concentration of students and museums, as well as its quantity of arts-related jobs; the city has 104 museums and 6.9 fine art schools per 100,000 people. Coming in second, San Francisco enjoys a flourishing artistic industry with 3,567 such businesses and 4.62 performing arts companies per 100,000 people. New York — despite its reputation for having more art dealers, fine arts schools, creative businesses, museums, and dance and theater companies than any other city — only came in third, since its dense population weakened per-capita numbers. And with 3,599 creative businesses per 100,000 residents, Washington, DC beat out Los Angeles for fourth place.
The next 10 cities are much more surprising. Lexington ranked sixth because of its young student population (13.9% of resident are in school, and 23.7% are aged 18-34). Anchorage took seventh place, since it has the highest ratio of museums per capita — 2.55 per 100,000 people — and its median age of 33.2 years was the second lowest among cities surveyed. Colorado Springs, a bastion of social conservatism, came in ninth place, having 5.83 fine art schools per 100,000 people, while the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu took fifteenth due to its 3.69 performing arts companies per 100,000 people.
While it’s always exciting to hear about cities thriving creatively outside the usual art hubs, it’s hard to know how much WorldWideLearning’s report can be believed, as it doesn’t actually tell us anything about the quality of galleries, museums, and schools in these locales.
Also, its criteria echoes the art word’s existing, limiting biases. It assumes that artistic inspiration is best found in large urban areas, yet anyone who’s traveled to a small, culturally vibrant city like Portland, Maine knows that’s not true. Many artists have spent their careers in remote regions — Georgia O’Keefe and Susan Rothenberg both found or still find endless inspiration in New Mexico — yet no cities in the Southwest make the list, and only one in the Midwest does.
What’s more, the ranking doesn’t factor in costs of living. All the top five cities (as well as Honolulu) are among the country’s most expensive places to live. Many young artists without wealthy parents to bankroll their rent just can’t afford art school in such places.
As is, the report might be better titled “Fifteen Cities Where Students Can Best Make Art World Connections and Get a Job After Graduation.” Finding creative inspiration is a whole other ballgame, one that varies from person to person and can’t be figured out by simply looking at an index.