“Art is to the community what the dream is to the individual.”
Destination Art, Here We Come!
Artists and their respective art cities often feel like they are one in the same. When one thinks of Monet, what comes to mind is his garden in Giverny. Georgia O’Keeffe conjures up the desert wildflowers of Taos, and Thomas Cole’s landscapes apotheosize the sublime Hudson River Valley. It’s as if the artist and the place are one.
Recognizing the symbiotic relationship of maker with place, we explored with our readers the leading art cities conducive to an artful life. Aiming to winnow a large list of contenders to 10 destinations, we asked community members to rank locations based on affordability, community engagement, cultural attractions and inspirational environment — attributes we feel best support an artist’s lifestyle.
The results offer a list of art cities with welcome diversity in terms of size, location and other attributes, proving there’s a promised land waiting for all creatives who seek it. Whether you’re about to embark on an art career or are looking to better support your current practice, we trust that “Art City, USA” will be your North Star, pointing you to your true home.
A Hotbed of Cultural and Artistic Happenings
Four hundred years of practice make perfect. In Santa Fe, art, history and culture harmonize in ways seldom experienced anywhere else. A longtime mecca for creatives and dreamers of all sorts, Santa Fe’s roots run deep.
Indigenous peoples have lived there for thousands of years, and the Spanish arrived in 1610 — that’s 10 years before the Mayflower set sail. The city’s mixture of Native, Spanish and Anglo cultures makes it a hotbed of cultural and artistic happenings, and its vibrant gallery scene and packed calendar of events mean nobody there need be at a loss for something to do.
Pair that with Santa Fe’s jaw-dropping collection of museums (don’t miss the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum) in a relatively compact, walkable and historic downtown, and you quickly see why so many people visit and decide never to leave.
Of course, 300 days of sunshine a year doesn’t hurt. Yes, Santa Fe is steeped in history, but the future — particularly for artists, makers and creatives — looks awfully bright.
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500 Art Galleries…Just to Start
New York City is expensive and crowded, yet artists flock to the metropolis, lured in part by a gallery system that fuels a robust art market and offers an array of employment opportunities. Frommer’s travel guide notes that Manhattan alone has more than 500 private art galleries.
All those flocking artists offer an immediate consolation prize, should the one-person show be long in coming. Hanging out with artists is fun and inspiring. It can also incite competition — not a bad thing if you need incentive to keep working.
There’s a lot of art to look at in NYC. Gallery viewing is free, and there are hundreds of cultural institutions. Manhattan’s “Museum Mile” boasts some of the world’s finest museums, including El Museo del Barrio, the Jewish Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
City residents can enter the Met for as little as a dollar, and most museums have at least one free or reduced-fee evening per week.
Days and Nights of (Affordable) Luxury
Take in the mountainous landscape and explore all the vibrant art and historic architecture that Asheville, North Carolina, has to offer. Nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city of Asheville has everything a visiting tourist, artist or wayfarer may want—not to mention a reasonable cost of living for those looking for a big life change.
For the grand art cities experience, there’s the dome-topped Basilica of Saint Lawrence, and you can’t go through the city without a trip to the 19th-century Biltmore Estate, which displays artworks by such masters as Renoir.
For an artsy afternoon, there are the 310 ART gallery, the Asheville Gallery of Art, the Folk Art Center and other galleries.
Just outside of the downtown area is the River Arts District, where more than 100 local artists have chosen to set up shop. With copious food options in downtown Asheville, both days and nights are spent in (affordable) luxury.
2,000 Pieces of Public Art
Where does one begin to take in the art scene in Portland? Without stepping inside a building, you can view at least 2,000 pieces of public art — largely thanks to Forest for the Trees, which commissions such works and holds a yearly festival.
Galleries in art cities aren’t to be overlooked either. Three monthly art walks in Portland feature venues across the city or in specific art districts. Musicians, street performers, restaurants and food venders add to the vibe.
Need studio/living space? Check out the Old Town District, with three buildings converted to lofts, some with storefront studios.
Looking for art education? There’s Pacific Northwest College of Art, Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books and the Portland Art Museum — the oldest art museum on the West Coast.
Need a dose of nature? You got it with plentiful city parks, the Portland Japanese Garden, Marquam Nature Park’s 200+ acres of undeveloped land and Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge—not to mention the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Pacific Coast 50 miles west.
Keeping a City Weird
To many, the capital city and cultural epicenter of the Lone Star State are the same — Austin. With the slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” the city takes pride in the offbeat and eye-catching. Art, no surprise, is a significant part of that mix.
Both East and West Austin boast of yearly open studios put on by Big Medium, a nonprofit promoting contemporary art in Texas. Art Alliance Austin connects the city’s community with artists and makers through festivals, fairs and collaborations.
Austin Art Garage is one of many galleries in the city putting hometown makers first, offering affordable artworks ranging in style from street to folk to Texas-inspired.
In Austin, you’ll find a 60-ton Cathedral of Junk and a monumental building designed by Ellsworth Kelly at the Blanton Museum of Art.
Keenly aware of the importance of creatives to its community, in 2017 Austin launched its Art Space Assistance Program, funding affordable space for artists to rehearse, create and perform. That, along with warehouse redevelopment efforts, helps keep the arts alive in Austin.
Home of the Bean
Chicago exists at the crossroads of America — both geographically and culturally. With so many stories converging in one place, it’s not surprising that the Windy City is host to a multitude of well-established and flourishing art communities.
In addition to mainstays like the Art Institute of Chicago (known for one of the greatest collections of Impressionist paintings outside of France) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is home to a plethora of other museums that represent the richness of the city’s population—such as the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.
The nonprofit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (Intuit) is a pioneer in promoting outsider and self-taught artists. Gallery crawlers won’t want to miss the three-floor Mars Gallery in the West Loop.
For a more literary turn, catch a live reading at bookstores such as the Book Cellar, Quimby’s Bookstore and Women & Children First.
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Maybe the Most Photographed City in the World
It may be most closely associated with the entertainment industry, but Los Angeles, and the sprawling metropolitan area surrounding it, offer serious rewards for fine artists.
It’s not the most picturesque destination in this list — as the filmmaker and historian Thom Andersen has observed, “Los Angeles may be the most photographed city in the world, but it’s one of the least photogenic” — but the surrounding landscape offers abundant natural beauty, from the coastal views of the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the San Gabriel Mountains, which rise to the north of the city’s skyline.
On the museum front, big names include the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Midsize institutions include the Norton Simon Museum, the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Japanese American National Museum, to name just a few.
Complementing these is an extensive network of galleries and alternative art spaces serving contemporary artists of all stripes.
Art in the Big Easy
If you’re bored in New Orleans, you’re not doing it right. There are plenty of museums to choose from — like the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes & Culture.
There’s no shortage of good food or drink, either. The Carousel Bar & Lounge, located in the Hotel Monteleone, is a merry-go-round bar that’s been revolving since 1949.
But what you’re really in the Big Easy for is, of course, the music. Whether you’re walking down Bourbon Street or popping into one of the many music clubs, like Preservation Hall, you simply can’t escape the magic that is New Orleans jazz.
And what about Mardi Gras? Two weeks of parades and costumes, with the traditional colors of purple, green and gold — a tradition more than three centuries old.
New Orleans is a city that knows heartache, with the effects of Hurricane Katrina still lingering, but it also knows perseverance in the face of tragedy and the way that art, in its many forms, can be the finest medicine for our souls.
Where Mother Nature Puts On Her Best
Visitors to Denver are never hard-pressed to find gasp-worthy vistas. Take in the vast blue skies of the High Plains to the east. Stop and stare as the sun gilds the Rocky Mountains to the west.
As the capital of Colorado and also the highest of art cities in the United States (at an altitude of exactly one mile above sea level), Denver is a place where Mother Nature puts on her best.
The city delivers more than 4,000 acres of urban and traditional parkland and another 14,000 acres of skyline mountain parks. Day-trippers can explore hundreds of miles of forest — studded with lakes, waterfalls and wildlife — at Rocky Mountain National Park, or merge onto the Mount Evans Scenic Byway — the highest paved road in North America — which twists and turns as it rises 9,000 feet through five climate zones to the summit of Mount Evans.
For artists who appreciate that inexplicable connection between the outdoors and creativity, Denver offers one of the most inspiring environments of all.
The Mural Capital of the World?
Philadelphia wears its art history on its sleeve; monuments dating from the nation’s founding coexist with more recent creative works. Independence National Historical Park, home of the Liberty Bell and the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is just a short walk from downtown Philly.
Complementing the 18th-century Georgian architecture and statuary are more than 2,000 murals, making Philly one of the art cities in line for the title of mural capital of the world.
Philadelphia’s museums include the Barnes Foundation, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Rodin Museum (the largest collection of Auguste Rodin’s work outside Paris).
And don’t miss Philadelphia’s Magic Garden, where you can enjoy live music or just explore the outdoor labyrinth of folk and mosaic art.
Article contributions from Michael Gormley, Samantha Sanders, Michael Woodson, Holly Davis, Courtney Jordan, Mike Allen, and Austin R. Williams. All illustrations by Jag Nagra.
- A version of this story appeared in Artists Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.