I’m an artist living in the South (I’ve moved around over the years, but stayed in basically the same region), and lately I’ve been trying to weigh the pros and cons of relocating to NYC. A couple of my friends have moved there, and I feel like I might be making a big mistake by staying here. I’m stagnating creatively and I feel like New York might jump-start me into making more art, but I just can’t figure out if it’s worth it. Do I have to move to NYC to make it?
On the Fence
Dear On the Fence,
When I first read your email, the words felt like they were gnawing at my ankles. This is such a contentious issue for so many people in the arts, and it has come up in more than a few recent conversations I’ve had with friends. I’m excited to dig into it, but I’m going to warn you from the get-go: there is no right answer here, bumble bee. There are, however, a lot of ways to balance your perspective and make the right decision for you right now. Maybe you will change your mind in the future, and that’s okay. But all we can do as thoughtful, sentient, humble, striving human beings is to make our decisions based on what feels right for us in the present moment. That’s all we can do, and we have to learn to trust ourselves, and not beat ourselves up over, or regret, those decisions we made in earnest.
Now, to figure out which path is best for you, you’ve got to be rational and a little bit quixotic in order to speak to that hesitant heart of yours.
New York City has long been a beacon for artists of every kind. It can seem like the secret ingredient for so many accomplished artists—that extra something that gave them power and worth, without which they’d be nothing. I mean, what would Patti Smith have amounted to if she hadn’t have left New Jersey to slum it in New York City with ol’ Bobby Mapplethorpe? (Mind you, her current advice to artists considering a move to New York is: find another city.)
For centuries, the art world was centralized in one city (Rome, Paris, New York, etc.) because it had to be. Before the Internet, there wasn’t a way to show your work to a lot of people around the world on a regular basis. You needed to be in New York, or wherever it was at the time, if you were going to make the star-studded connections you needed to in order to succeed.
But as you know, my sweet dewdrop, the entire landscape of images and communication has changed, shifted, about-faced, and has been effectively turned on its head. What a different world we live in now! The ever-evolving digital sphere has made it a hell of alot easier to not live in New York yet still do the thing, still show the work, and still make the connections you need to make from wherever you are.
I will say, however, that in the commercial gallery world, the New York label still holds value. The old pros still put a premium on an artist who studied, lived, loved, or passed out cold for a few months in New York City. I do not know why, but some patrons think it’s some kind of rite of passage for great artists. As if by spending an extended time in the insane hustle and bustle, then and only then, can an artistic mind truly grasp the world that is our own. But I don’t believe that. I think for some people it informs them and for others it doesn’t. Flannery O’Connor understood just as much about art and human nature as quintessential city-boy Henry Miller ever did.
So you should consider all of that. There is no one way to do it; it just comes down to what makes sense for you. There are some clear-cut benefits to being immersed in the competitive, or downright catty, New York art scene: an endless stream of curators, collectors, dealers, and fellow artists within a few miles of your studio (if you can get them to trek to you Bushwick or Newark studio); and resources galore, from museums, galleries, and performing arts to art supplies. All of which is very stimulating but can be hugely distracting, potentially taking you out of your studio on a nightly basis, and evenings might be the only time you have to devote to your practice because of the one or two day jobs you need to pay the $3,000/month rent for that bed-in-a-closet that you share with other struggling artists.
Of course, the New York market is unbeatable. While there are cities with vibrant art scenes, the collecting market has yet to catch up to the decentralization of the working art world. It’s not all sunshine and roses yet, unfortunately.
That said, there are countless artists who never chose to struggle in the Big Apple, whose careers have taken off swimmingly. The thing is this: New York isn’t what it was when Patti Smith was boheming around reading Rimbaud, writing amazing poem-songs, and not washing her hair. It’s not that place anymore, now it’s a place where you have to work your ever-loving tail off to pay a billion dollars in rent while annoyingly rich people flaunt their richness in your face. Many artists love living in New York, and maybe you would too, but it’s not a feasible option for a lot of artists who are trying to make honest work and a good name for themselves. Timing is also a consideration; artist Jayson Musson worked in Philadelphia (aka New York’s sixth borough) for 15 years, only moving to Brooklyn after he had developed a name for himself through his Art Thoughtz online videos.
Last but not least, here’s the problem I have with the thought pattern of “If I move to New York, then I’ll become a better artist.” It’s what I call the “If-then” delusion of happiness. And it can be applied to every situation in our lives where we say, “If ______ happens, then I’ll be happy.” “If I lose 15 pounds, then I’ll be happy.” “If I had a nicer house, then I’d be happy.” “If I get an MFA, then I’ll be happy.” “If SoSo Gallery represents me, then I’ll be happy.” It’s all the same thing, and it’s an endless, horrifying, depressing cycle.
The fact is that right now, you are where you are, and you probably have everything you need to be happy and make great art. Don’t use your location as an excuse not to do what you want to do. You have unlimited tools and knowledge at your fingertips now; we all do. There are centuries of words and voices and artists who’ve likely said everything you need to know, and all of that is available to you. Educate yourself, surround yourself with other artists, take trips, visit galleries and museums, go see working artists’ studios. Engage yourself in the community you’re in first, then, if that’s truly not enough, think about going elsewhere. But before you take off and head north, be honest with yourself, and seriously question whether you’re using the fact that you aren’t in New York as an excuse, or if it’s actually something you need in order to become a better artist.
Ultimately, it’s up to you; just try to be real with yourself. If you don’t absolutely need to experience the big city hustle, I’d recommend staying where you are and focusing on educating yourself and making better work.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.