It stands to reason that inspiration can be found in just about any city in the world, if you know where to look and how to find it. On a busy art school schedule, however, who has the time to go looking for it?
Between coursework, studio time, assigned readings, friends’ gallery shows and studying to pass core general education classes, arts majors have plenty to do without having to hunt for inspiration whenever it’s time to create. With that in mind, we put together our list of 15 cities where inspiring people, places and things seem to sprout fully formed from the soil.
For information on how we built our ranking system for this list, check out our methodology here.
The 15 Most Inspiring Cities
While it didn’t end up on top in any individual category, Boston — sometimes referred to as the “Athens of America” — made an impressive showing across the board. Its strongest categories included number of art schools per capita, museums per capita and percentage of college students in the general population, which fits with the region’s national reputation as a hub of higher education.
Number of museums: 104
Fine arts schools per 100,000 people: 6.90
Boston’s cultural infrastructure for artists, gallerists, patrons and scholars has deep roots, and art majors who get in on the opportunities available in the city may soon learn that inspiration lurks around every corner. The city’s 104 museums and dozens of smaller galleries can help quite a bit, too, when it comes time to stimulate the creative imagination.
This West Coast mecca for arts and culture took top honors for its concentration of creative businesses and ranked above the mid-line for museums and fine arts schools. Art dealers and performing arts companies are also prevalent here, tallying to top-three status in both categories.
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 4.62
Creative industries businesses per 100,000 people: 3,567
On top of all the universities and professional creative outlets in San Francisco, the City by the Bay is also home to scores of historic neighborhoods and inspiring cultural landmarks. From The Haight to The Castro and Yerba Buena to the Golden Gate, powerful conduits of creative and artistic energy abound.
As the biggest city in the U.S. by population, New York led in multiple categories for its sheer number of businesses and cultural institutions. No other city in the nation has more art dealers, performing arts companies, fine arts schools, creative businesses or museums, but the sheer density of people diluted the per-capita numbers.
Number of art dealers: 695
Number of performing arts companies: 1373
With the street art, vibrant local music scenes, centuries-old architecture, extraordinary human diversity and world-famous nightlife culture, it’s essentially impossible to take in all the visual and creative stimulation there is to see in the Big Apple. Trying can be fun, though, if you’ve got the energy.
The nation’s capital just out-edged San Francisco to take the highest ranking for creative businesses per capita, and its collection of museums and fine arts academies stacks up considerably for a medium-sized city.
Creative industries businesses per 100,000 people: 3,599
Fine arts schools per 100,000 people: 5.24
Loads of classical statuary and enormous monuments galore decorate the streets through which flows the federal lifeblood of the U.S., which can be inspiring in and of itself. D.C. residents also live just a cab ride away from the physical archives of the Library of Congress, wherein sits a collection of audio and film recordings unmatched by any other institution in the world.
Unsurprisingly for the home of Hollywood and Studio City, performing arts companies per capita were its strongest category. It also placed second overall in number of art dealers and plays host to a significant contingent of residents aged 18-34.
Number of art dealers: 263
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 6.50
LA is famous for its big-name, big-budget creative productions, but plenty of local publications like Artweek.LA ensure that non-Hollywood arts get their due. It also doesn’t hurt that Los Angeles County is home to two of the top 10 art schools in the country in 2015 — UCLA and Cal Arts, ranked 4 and 6 respectively according to U.S. News & World Report — which can have a way of bringing inspiring talent to town.
This hidden treasure of the central South ran away with the title for highest percentage of the students in the population, ranking a full point-and-a-half ahead of the city that placed second in that category. Kentucky also placed No. 6 in affordability in a 2014 cost of living survey, which can be great for artists and students alike.
Student portion of the population: 13.9 percent
Portion of the population aged 18-34: 23.7 percent
Art is a big part of life in Lexington, and support initiatives like LexArts and Community Supported Arts (CSA) by the Lexington Arts League exist to promote local artists and help share their work. The value of a support structure can’t be underestimated when the well of inspiration begins to run low.
The most populous city in Alaska may not be on the radar on everyone in the lower 48, but it made an impressive showing on some of the key metrics. Anchorage is home to the highest ratio of museums per capita, for one thing, and the median age of its population was second-lowest among all cities surveyed.
Museums per 100,000 people: 2.55
Median age of metro area population: 33.2
Crisp air, eccentric polar daylight cycles and breathtaking scenery in all directions can do wonders to keep students on their toes and out of an artistic rut. The intersections between city life and native culture can energize creative spirit, also, and what better to do but work away in the studio when it’s too cold to go outside?
A top-five ranking for its number of performing arts companies and an impressive showing in the fine arts academies category place Seattle firmly in the middle of the list. If there were a metric for incubating counterculture movements, the northernmost West Coast city may have done even better.
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 3.35
Number of fine arts schools: 206
Seattle has long been a stronghold for art of all kinds, from underground fine art and comic books to multicultural dance and music. Fans of language and literature can find inspiration at the Seattle Arts & Lectures program, which puts on literary and poetry events featuring national and international stars of the world of words.
The Rocky Mountain West makes its first of two appearances on the list with this city of 440,000. Colorado Springs came in third out of fifteen for both student percentage of the population and lost out only to Boston and New York for its ratio of fine art schools per capita.
Student portion of the population: 11.9 percent
Fine arts schools per 100,000 people: 5.83
The natural beauty in the Colorado Springs area can be a tremendous asset to en plein air painters, landscape photographers and others who draw their inspiration from the interplay of light and shadow in broad natural vistas. The visual tension of downtown high-rises set against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks doesn’t hurt, either.
Despite being the only Midwestern city on this list (unless Kentucky can be counted in the Midwest, which is a matter of debate), Omaha holds its own against the coastal giants of arts and culture. A 90th-percentile showing in museums per capita and a surprising density of art schools and arts dealers place it firmly in the Number 10 slot.
Museums per 100,000 people: 1.92
Fine arts schools per 100,000 people: 5.42
The Nebraska Arts Council supports visual artists, poets, dancers, actors, musicians and other members of Omaha’s diverse creative communities. The Council also makes multiple grants available to artists across disciplines, with the understanding that inspiration can come more easily when artists have enough money to devote time to their work.
The concentration of local performing arts companies and creative businesses in the jewel of the Willamette Valley make plain this city’s independent spirit. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) counts a total of 35 colleges and universities in Portland, and the total student population of the city falls just a few ticks shy of the 100,000 mark.
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 3.76
Creative industries businesses per 100,000 people: 2,077
Portland has made a few city lists before, and its past accolades one of the cleanest cities in the U.S., one of the top metro areas for bicycle riders and one of the best food and drink scenes in the country speak to the color and shape of its inspiring identity. It’s also home to Powell’s City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world.
The Mile High City has a fair percentage of youthful residents, and its concentrations of art dealers and art schools came in well above average. There must be something inspiring about that clean mountain air, also, because Denver came out ahead of Los Angeles to take a top-five spot in creative businesses per capita.
Number of fine arts schools: 131
Creative industries businesses per 100,000 people: 2,378
Plenty of local galleries and support from regional arts organizations contribute to a hospitable climate for artists and arts majors in Denver. Arts majors can stimulate their creative juices with near-constant gallery events and a public art scene that includes one of the largest, strangest and most intense sculptures ever installed outside an airport.
The age of residents in the Texas capital average just 33 years old, the youngest median age by far of any city on this list, and its student population percentage beats all other entries but one. Austin is also the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World,” which is reflected in its ratio of performing arts companies per capita.
Portion of the population aged 18-34: 25.2 percent
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 4.08
Some estimates indicate 110 people move into the Austin metro area every day, which makes for a pace of innovation and municipal change that inspires local art of all kinds. Community and patronage organizations such as Art Alliance Austin and Black Fret, a local music non-profit, work to ensure as much opportunity for working artists as possible.
Art is a big deal in New Orleans, evidenced most plainly by its first-place ranking for art dealers per capita. It’s also a historically hospitable place for performing arts of all kinds. New Orleans is also home to one of the most diverse arrays of galleries and museums of any medium-small city on this list.
Art dealers per 100,000 people: 5.62
Creative industries businesses per 100,000 people: 1,577
The wealth of inspiration available in New Orleans may include such barnburners of visual and auditory stimulation as Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but the unobtrusive majesty of French Quarter architecture, street-performing brass bands and the city’s deep undercurrent of mystical tradition is not to be ignored.
Hawaii’s capital and largest city rounds out the list, thanks, in part, to its sizeable population of young adults and a collection of arts venues and performance organizations. These artistic resources keep the island city’s artists and students well occupied when not surfing, sunning or otherwise enjoying the weather.
Portion of the population aged 18-34: 22.5 percent
Performing arts companies per 100,000 people: 3.69
Those whose artistic spirits are stirred by coastal beauty need only glance over a few images of Honolulu and the surrounding area to see a veritable supermarket of inspiring scenery. The city’s arts district is home to more than a dozen galleries that open up en masse for monthly art walks, and the Honolulu Museum of Art works to simultaneously celebrate the arts in general and Hawaiian island culture in particular.
There were a lot of points to consider when crunching numbers on such a seemingly qualitative topic. After giving the matter a lot of thought, seven metrics were determined:
- 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 (2012)
- Museums per 100,000 people
- Fine arts schools in the metropolitan area per 100,000 (2012)
- Business classified in the “creative industries” sector per 100,000 people
Every U.S. city with a population of more than 300,000 was scored based on these seven points, and the top 15 aggregate scores were chosen. In the case of a tie (and there were a few), each city’s raw scores for fine arts schools and creative businesses were used to determine the final order.
Boston: “City of Boston,” April 29, 2015, http://www.cityofboston.gov/, “The Guild of Boston Artists,” http://guildofbostonartists.org/, “Athens of America Origin,” Celebrate Boston, http://www.celebrateboston.com/culture/athens-of-america-origin
San Francisco: “San Francisco Landmarks,” California Tourist Guide, http://www.californiatouristguide.com/san-francisco-landmarks/, San Francisco Neighborhoods, http://www.sanfrancisco.com/neighborhoods/
“History of the Library,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/about/history-of-the-library/
“Best Fine Arts Programs,” U.S. News & World Report, http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-fine-arts-schools/fine-arts-rankings
“Cost of Living Data Series,” 2014 Annual Average, Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, http://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/index.stm
Lexington: “About Us,” LexArts, http://lexarts.org/about-us/about/, “Community Supported Art (CSA),” Lexington Art League, http://www.lexingtonartleague.org/community-supported-art-csa, “College Navigator – Kentucky,” National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=KY&ic=1+2&of=1&od=0&pg=3
Arts & Culture, City of Anchorage, http://www.anchorage.net/ak/arts-culture
Seattle: Seattle Artists, http://seattleartists.com/, Seattle Dances, http://seattledances.com/, “Arts and Culture,” City of Colorado Springs, http://www.springsgov.com/Page.aspx?NavID=4519
Omaha: “Artists in Schools and Communities Roster,” Nebraska Arts Council, http://www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov/artists/artistdirectory/aisc_roster, “Grants for Nebraska Artists,” What We Do, Nebraska Arts Council, http://www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov/services/what_we_do/what_we_do, Omaha Summer Arts Festival, http://www.summerarts.org/
Portland: “Interesting Facts about Portland Oregon,” AfterGlobe, http://afterglobe.net/interesting-facts-about-portland-oregon/, “College of the Arts, Portland State University,” http://www.pdx.edu/the-arts/
Denver: DenverArts, http://denverarts.org/, “Arts & Culture,” City of Denver, http://www.denver.org/things-to-do/denver-arts-culture/, “Keep remarkable ‘Mustang’ sculpture at DIA,” The Denver Post, February 6, 2013, http://www.denverpost.com/ci_22532803/keep-remarkable-mustang-sculpture-at-dia
Austin: “How many people move to Austin a day? Here’s the official number,” Colin Pope, Austin Business Journal, February 14, 2014, http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/blog/at-the-watercooler/2014/02/how-many-people-move-to-austin-a-day-heres-the, Art Alliance Austin, http://www.artallianceaustin.org/, About Black Fret, http://www.blackfret.org/about/
New Orleans: Mardi Gras New Orleans, http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, http://lineup.nojazzfest.com/, New Orleans Arts District, http://www.neworleansartsdistrict.com/
Honolulu: “Galleries,” Arts District Honolulu, http://artsdistricthonolulu.com/otherareagalleries, “Mission,” Honolulu Museum of Art, http://honolulumuseum.org/358-mission
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