Most people seem to decide where to live based on a combination of three factors: family, relationships and work. For artists, the context of one’s life perhaps matters in different ways than it does for other people. Many artists are making work that is context dependent and heavily influenced by their surroundings. On the other hand, many artists forgo the idea of home altogether, and live a nomadic life out of necessity–chasing after residencies, temporary teaching jobs, and project grants. Though it is true that you can be an artist anywhere, different places can support different kinds of art practices, with varying degrees of ease.
Although talk of a decentralized art world has been around for more than a decade, the pressure is still on to look at New York as the first choice of a place to live. Even within my peers in Chicago a pattern is clearly recognizable. For the most part, people graduate from the MFA program, stick around for about a year, and then move to New York. I have been conducting my own mini-sociological study on how people decide where to live, and have asked several friends and acquaintances to share the reasons behind their choices. Reasons for choosing New York include: “there are opportunities that are absent everywhere else;” “there is amazing art to see;” “there are grants and residencies only available to New York-based artists;” “if I don’t do it I will always wonder if I should have;” and “that’s where ‘it’ is happening.”
I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with those answers, maybe because I don’t like feeling pressured, and maybe because I am not sure if I buy it. Being a single parent forces me to think about things like public schools, the presence of public services like healthcare and public assistance, safety issues, feasibility of creating a support system, and quality of life as a whole. I know New York, like Chicago, does not fare very well in terms of the factors I just mentioned. Single parenting makes quality of life issues more pressing, but everyone has to contend with these realities in one way or another.
Continuing my quest for answers, I spoke to people that have left New York for the San Francisco Bay, and some that came to New York from the Bay area. San Francisco has been on my mind because it seems to offer a unique mix of city life and vibrancy combined with a livability usually found in smaller places. I cannot hide the fact that the politics around issues of gender, disability, and class feel much more like home in the Bay area as opposed to other cities. In any case, my “findings” reveal a similar take on the two cities across differences of age, profession, and even the ultimate decision of where to live.
The people I talked to told me that New York takes the cake for having lots of opportunity in any and every field, free cultural events, and some magic, impossible-to-explain lure of infinite possibility. But also part of the bargain are less exciting things like unhealthy competitiveness, hyper-individualism, exorbitant cost of living, and rampant careerism. They thought that San Francisco had a great public safety network, easy access to nature and healthy foods, a sense of community and support, and a culture of openness towards difference in all of its incarnations. The downside is that the city can feel small sometimes, with a limited art scene, and very pricy rents.
I can’t say I have made my own decision yet. There are too many variables, like the outcome of fellowship applications, residencies and jobs to still figure out, but I would love to hear from those of you who have made or are facing similar decisions after graduation. What are the factors you considered when choosing where to live? How happy or unhappy you are with that decision now? I think it would be useful to share our insights.