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There's a false dilemma that fine arts students tend to worry about facing after graduation: should you give up your creative liberty and get a full-time job, or focus on your passion and potentially starve? Fortunately for anyone considering or working through an arts degree, it's possible to come to a compromise between those two extremes if you cultivate your lifestyle in the right circumstances.

We've already established that there are a number of surprisingly valuable arts and literature majors out there. Additionally, one important step on the road to balancing your art with your work is finding a city where you can earn enough for decent room and board while still maintaining the free time and personal space you need to stay creative. We crunched some hard data on 60 major cities in the U.S. and came up with a list of the top 15 places where you might be able to find the traction to get a good start toward a future in the arts.

Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Additionally, keep an eye out for any gold star icons you see -- we gave medals to call out cities that ranked especially high (the top 10-20 percent) in specific metrics. To learn about how we built our rankings, check out our methodology section at the end of the article.

The 15 Most Economical Cities for Artists on a Budget

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Cincinnati

This metropolis on the north bank of the Ohio River took the top spot for its affordable cost of living, better-than-average employment rate and considerable density of businesses classified as “creative industries.” What's more, the nonprofit organization ArtWorks Cincinnati expects to employ more than 3,000 youth and artists in 2015, and concentrates its efforts on empowering young artists as entrepreneurs, teachers and community leaders.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 50%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013:  Top 20% ($606)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 30%

Most Economical Cities For Art Majors Durham

The 2013 American Community Survey reported formidable wages for arts, design and entertainment workers in this North Carolina city. It also ranked among the top 20 percent of cities for commuting without a car. Durham is home to Duke University which may have helped it edge out San Francisco for the top spot in arts and humanities degrees per capita.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 50% ($715)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 30%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Des Moines

Arts and entertainment wages are strong in the capital of Iowa, which is especially noteworthy in light of the city's reportedly affordable living expenses. The unemployment rate in Des Moines also ranks in the bottom 10 percent of cities surveyed, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, with just 4 percent of people categorized as unemployed in March 2015.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 40% ($688)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 40%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Nashville

The cost of living in Music City was one of the most affordable in the U.S. in 2014, reported as a full 10 percent less expensive than the national average. Nashville also ranked among the top 20 percent for creative businesses and residents with arts and humanities degrees, thanks in part to its more than twenty local college and university campuses.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 50%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 50% ($698)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Pittsburgh

Rent in Pittsburgh is eminently affordable -- only one other city in our top 15 even comes close -- and the city's Industrial Age infrastructure makes getting around without a car somewhat easier than it can be in cities that had their growth kick in more recently. The local unemployment rate matched the national average of 5.6 percent in March 2015, but employment in some areas of the city has improved by as much as two full percentage points since 2013.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 40%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 10% ($572) Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 50%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Columbus

Here's another former powerhouse of the Rust Belt that's coming back into its own in the 21st century. General living expenses in Columbus are among the most affordable in our ranking, unemployment was just 4.4 percent in 2015 and a median rent that's just less than $650 is nothing to sneeze at. What's more, the Greater Columbus Arts Council works to ensure that art events remain accessible to residents and artists can stay connected to each other.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Bottom 50%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 30% ($646)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 50%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Minneapolis

Although it didn't run away with any single one of the eight factors we used for our rankings, Minneapolis made a fairly strong showing across the board. The 4 percent local unemployment rate was good enough for a top 10 finish in that category, and its concentration of arts degree holders, public transit commuters and creative industries and businesses were each good enough to place among the top 30 percent of all cities surveyed.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 40%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Bottom 40% ($837)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors San Francisco

Young artists have migrated to California's countercultural mecca for generations now, and more than a few arts movements -- such as the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 20th century and the more contemporary Mission School -- have started or taken root here. Median rent in the city is among the least affordable in the country, but it's got a top-three concentration of creative businesses per capita, and no other city on this list has a more accessible or well-utilized public transit system.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 10%  Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Bottom 10% ($1,355)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 10% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Louisville

This city in the Ohio River Valley offers a better-than-average employment climate and proximity to one of U.S. News & World Report's top 100 national public universities. One potential dark spot in the Kentucky city's category rankings is its 50th-percentile concentration of creative businesses, but an enterprising young artist could take that as an opportunity to strike out to start a creative services company of their own to fill the void.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 50%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 20% ($603)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Bottom 50%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Boston

Second only to San Francisco as a public transportation city, Boston offers competitive salaries for arts and media jobs, a solid showing in the creative businesses category and access to one of the most diversely educated liberal arts environments in the country. Unsurprisingly, median rent in Boston is high, but public transit, an increasing amount of bikeability and general cultural vibrancy can help mitigate the burden of housing costs.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Bottom 20% ($1,101)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 10% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Tulsa

Tulsa's general cost of living and average 2013 rent came in at No. 3 and No. 2 in their respective categories, and the employment rate is one of the best in the country. What kept the city from placing higher in the list, however, was the difficulty in getting around – Tulsa just isn't a city that's easy to commute around without a car. Despite that, the above-average concentration of arts-oriented businesses and comparatively low number of arts and humanities graduates combine to suggest a favorable market for jobs in the creative sector.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Bottom 30%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 10% ($587)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 50%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors -- Omaha

Nebraska's largest city took second place for general affordability and boasted an exceptionally low unemployment rate in March 2015 -- 3.1 percent, to be exact, 2.4 percentage points below the national average. Its competitive median rent figure also suggests that recent arts grads might be able to find housing with enough space for a small studio. A somewhat limited public transit system and comparatively low arts and media wages are all that kept Omaha from landing higher in the rankings.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Bottom 30%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 30% ($652)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 40%

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Denver

Walkability and public transit may be relatively new priorities for some western U.S. cities, but Denver is ahead of the game: One in every 14 commuters gets to work without a car, and residents took more than 100 million total public transit trips in 2014. On top of that, low unemployment and a considerable density of creative industry employment combine to suggest a variety of prospective jobs for arts grads.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 40%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Bottom 30% ($891)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors St. Louis

Median monthly rent and general living expenses in St. Louis both ranked among the five most affordable on our list. The overall employment climate doesn't quite stack up to the most competitive cities in the country, but better-than-average public transit access and a strong local contingent of creative businesses suggest that those who think outside the box when looking for work should be able to set themselves up for success.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 50%
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Top 30% ($646)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 20% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

Most Economical Cities for Art Majors Washington D.C.

The nation's capital rounds out the list with a bang, bringing with it the highest concentration of creative businesses and the second-highest density of public transit commuters among all cities in the top 15. One downside of life inside the Beltway is the steep cost of living, which includes the highest median rent on our list, but correspondingly high median for wages paid to workers in arts and media occupations may help take the edge off.

Median earnings rankingMedian earnings ranking: Top 10% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold
Median monthly rent, 2013Median monthly rent, 2013: Bottom 10% ($1,369)
Creative businesses rankingCreative businesses ranking: Top 10% Median Annual Earnings for Arts -- Gold

 

Methodology

We started with a list of 60 cities that anchor metropolitan areas whose 2014 population was above 500,000, according to the Census Bureau. Each city was then given a score on a total of eight individual metrics, weighted according to the influence of each factor on overall economic viability:

  1. Cost of living (Council for Community and Economic Research, 2014) - 20%
  2. Median rent (American Community Survey, 2013) - 15%
  3. Local unemployment rate (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2015)- 15%
  4. Density of businesses classified as Creative Industries, according to the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system (Local Arts Index, 2014) - 15%
  5. Median annual earnings for arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupations  (American Community Survey, 2013) - 10%
  6. Commuting patterns (walk/bikeability) (American Community Survey, 2013) - 10%
  7. Public transit usage (Federal Transit Authority, 2014) - 10%
  8. Arts/humanities degrees per capita (American Community Survey, 2013) - 5%

Each city was scored on a scale of 1 to 10 in each category, based on its percentile placement relative to the others, and a few surprising frontrunners emerged after the dust settled. In the event of a tie, the cost of living and median rent scores were used to determine which city took the higher spot.