When You Think You Live in a Cultural Desert

If I had a nickel for every time an artist told me that their lives would be better if only they lived somewhere else, well … I’d have a lot of nickels!

Some of you have convinced yourselves that your town isn’t an “art town.”

When I hear this excuse, I think to myself:

What is an art town?

©Sandra Mucha, Connecting Flight. Oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches x 2 inches. Used with permission.
©Sandra Mucha, Connecting Flight. Oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches. Used with permission.

Is it a place with galleries on every corner and informed people walking around buying art?

Is it a place that has a strong arts council with lots of support for public art?

Is it a place where museums attract plenty of blockbuster exhibitions?

Do art towns even exist?

I already know the answers to these questions. Except for a handful of places, I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as an art town brimming with enlightened art buyers.

Not living in an art town is simply another excuse for inaction. Artists who use this excuse think that they would be more successful if they lived in New York or Santa Fe or Portland or, frankly, anywhere else but where they are.

I’ve witnessed plenty of artists grow their businesses and careers in places that don’t show up on the world or even regional map of art towns.

But let’s set aside this argument on whether or not there’s such thing as “art towns.” That’s fodder for a different discussion.

©Chris Butcher, In A Cotton Field. Acrylic, 48 x 48 inches. Used with permission.
©Chris Butcher, In A Cotton Field. Acrylic, 48 x 48 inches. Used with permission.

Now we can focus on how to thrive in your supposed cultural desert.

On the Bright Side

You live where you live – and apparently you would prefer not to relocate. (Rule #1 for complaining is that you can’t complain unless you intend to do something about it.)

If you plan on staying where you are, it’s far more fruitful to take advantage of the situation.

First off, you have a good shot at becoming known in your current community where you have connections. Even a small number of connections are better than none. Do not write off your community.

Until you get out there and start building connections, you don’t know what possibilities your community offers.

You might become the big fish in the small pond! In an art town, it’s likely you could end up as a tiny minnow in an ocean of sharks.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer being the big fish. There might be more red dots on gallery labels in an “art town,” but they’re divided among a whole lot more artists.

And, hey, you may find that when you gain a reputation locally, it is easier to move into other markets.

Do You Still Think It’s Hopeless?

If you live far from civilization or are convinced you’re in a cultural desert, you’re in luck.

You have online tools that are mostly free or inexpensive – tools that artists of past generations never had.


©Eve Thompson, Balboa Pavilion. Watercolor, 20 x 26 inches. Used with permission.
©Eve Thompson, Balboa Pavilion. Watercolor, 20 x 26 inches. Used with permission.

Focus your efforts on strengthening your online presence.

First, identify your ideal audience. Research where they hang out online and plant yourself there.

Second, begin building and using your email list. Keep building it. Focus on the loyal fans who love your work.

Third, develop a strong social media presence. You don’t have to be everywhere, but you do have to use the platforms wisely.

Too much work? Sorry, but you don’t get to complain about having to spend too much time on the computer and living in a cultural desert.

Face the facts and decide to do something about it.

Your Turn

Do you live in an art town? Tell us about it.

Cultural desert? What have you found to work?

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28 thoughts on “When You Think You Live in a Cultural Desert”

  1. Back in the 1970’s I lived in a small town and if it was an “art town” I didn’t notice. One thing that was very noticeable was a lady who painted portraits of people like Queen Elizabeth and other people in the news, and she would exhibit them in the window of a tobacconist/newsagent shop that also sold a few basic art materials. There would be articles about her in the local paper.
    I started doing portraits while living in that town when my first child was born. I started by painting my son just for fun and friends asked me to paint portraits of their toddlers and they paid for them!
    And there was no social media in those days.

  2. I completely agree with you Alyson. I have lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for 17 years. When I first moved to town, there was an obvious lack of art and support for artists. Many artists have come and gone, often saying “this is not an art town”. Today, things are much different and I feel lucky to have gained a huge amount of support from the community as one of just a few ceramic artists in town. I recently established a new teaching space, Warehome Studios, adjacent to my personal studio and home. Classes have been more popular than I imagined and the business seems to grow primarily through word of mouth – a distinctly small town phenomenon. There are times when I question whether I would be better off as an artist in a big city with tons of galleries, museums and peers, but I think “staying the course” is what makes us successful in small towns.

  3. Thanks for the article Alyson! Recently, I’ve become really clear on what I want my art business/life to look like and as it turns out, I do want to be the big fish in a very small pond.

    Earning a great living from my art is the goal. Fame or ribbons from competitions in the big pond are not important to me. The opportunities are here in my small mountain town but I had to be honest with myself in what I really wanted. Bottom line – I have been busy chasing the arts world idea of success.

  4. Rebecca Crowell

    I had to respond when I saw the topic… Osseo, Wisconsin, my address since the late 1970’s, will never be found on any list of art towns. Eau Claire, the nearest small city, is lovely, but the visual art scene is decent for a city of 70,000, but not exactly vibrant. Back when I was getting started in my career, I made some connections in Eau Claire (and it was much more of a cultural desert in those days) but I also extended my focus to Minneapolis/St. Paul, a couple hour’s drive away. This was long before internet and social media. But even now I think that personal visits are important. So one bit of advice is to be willing to travel to any area within driving distance, or to stay in a more distant place for a couple of days to check out galleries and chat with other artists. Using social media to make connections, and then following up in person is ideal.

    I’ve also noticed something in talking with artists in my workshops–people who DO live in “art towns” such as in tourist places with a lot of galleries, often fail to look beyond their location for opportunities. This can limit them as artists from growing in their work, because they are only making specific kinds of art that sell in their area. If they live by the sea, they may feel stuck painting boats and seagulls…while yearning to go in some other direction. My advice has always been to make the art that you want to make– and then find the location that will work for sales–which may be far beyond your locality no matter what that is. This means following Alyson’s advice about social media and as well as getting out there personally.

  5. I had this attitude to my hometown as well. It does not have a regular retail gallery! Then I received a call from a local artist asking me to schedule local workshops. She even offered to get attendees among her arty friends. What an opportunity to stand out when I was ready to dismiss the town and look to greener pastures.

  6. I live in a small village in the Norwegian mountains with something like 400 people spread over a large area. So I’m using the Internet and social media to show my art. Narrowing down the target audience for my art has been really hard. Apparently, I don’t have it nailed just yet but I’m not stopping. I’m continuing to explore and experiment to see what works.

  7. OMG, Alyson, you wrote this article for ME! We moved to Tahoe city last SUNDAY! And I thought – It will be impossible to sell my abstract art here. Local artists paint landscapes of the lake, mountains and trees.

    But so far I am not selling much in Los Altos (the heart of Silicon Valley) or Los Gatos or
    Palo Alto, where my art hangs in 2 galleries.

    You article inspired me and kicked me in my behind. I will work becoming a big fish in a small pond. And get known in Silicon Valley along the way.

    Thank you.

  8. Thank you Alyson! I love your blog posts always filled with common sense. I also live in a small spanish town named Castellón de la Plana. It is certanly not an art city, but little by little can be noticed a slow but constant grouth in people’s art interests. I lived in Barcelona for eight years, a long time ago now. It is what you can tell an “Art Town”. And, as you wrote, it was full of sharks 😉 Here in my home town life is easier for me in order to create my art. There is a tiny and nice art community here and if not a big fish, I feel someone who can feed the small art world we have in our town. Thanks again and sorry for my English.

  9. All towns can be considered an “Art Town” depending upon how you look at it. It is not so much that it is an Art Town but what types of art are embraced there. Not all types of art are embraced everywhere. Living in the west, one sees a propensity of Western Art. All you have to do is visit Sculpture in the Park in Loveland and you see quite of bit of Western Art but not very much of Contemporary Abstract Art. And that type of art sells the most since we live in the West. Sometimes the longing for being a small fish in a big pond is not so bad. At least you can compare notes as to what works and what does not.

  10. Hi Alyson,

    This is an interesting topic, because once there was such a clear distinction (clumps of artists living in ‘golden triangles’ of generally the most beautiful areas – selling to the tourists) – and now because of ‘THE INTERNET’ everything is so different – artists are everywhere!

    When I went to uni (as a mature artist to learn about digital technology) the general consensus is that in another decade the career ‘artist’ would no longer exist

    The theory is that now that everybody is ‘the creator’ – (or the home printer of the materials that go on their walls) – so the niche area to make an income has been blown apart (disrupted by innovation)

    But I have a different theory, because all those kiddies were like little robots, barely an original thought amongst them (and I was there for years)

    Being an artist is about being creative – living on the edge – invention – neuroplasticity – the world will always need people like us –

    Survival in this day and age is not really dependant on where you are, because everything is changing so dramatically – I think what it takes is standing back objectively and treating your career as a work of art -think outside of the box

  11. Margaret Zylla

    Wow . To read this today is so timely . I live and love on the Front Range and have been artisticly nurtured by all of Colorado( I love all the Western life and art) here for 6 years and facing a move to Minnesota. I was just wondering how that’s going to be. I will miss the comraderee of so many fine artist friends. Time to make new ones .

  12. Jayanta Bhattacharya

    Alyson , thank you . I was really confused last couple of months about my art practice . Your this article made me with a different thought . Thank you .

  13. Jayanta Bhattacharya

    I am from south east Asia , North east India .Alyson , thank you . I was really confused last couple of months about my art practice . Your this article made me with a different thought . Thank you .

  14. Having moved from the artistically rich, nutrient seas of Northern California to the vast inland desert of Southern Arizona 15 years ago, my husband and I have never been happier. This remote location affords us time and economical liberty that otherwise was not only unrealistic, but more importantly, emotionally crippling. The affluence where we lived was crushing us.

    We opened an art gallery on the Main Street of our new small town over 10 years ago with a vision of adventure and exploration..that was about it. Be involved in the community, and be the best artists we can be.

    In mining terms, things are panning out.
    We are grateful for the many visitors, patrons, and collectors over the years.

    A few months ago the director of a regional art museum came into our gallery, purchased several pieces and offered my husband and me a 2 person show in the Main Gallery of the Museum 0f Art at the University of Arizona.

    We are on it. We love our life in this desert…this very Cultural Desert.

    Thanks for asking Alyson. As always, you are spot on1

  15. Such a fabulous topic and great to see you nail that most uncreative excuse of location:-) Indeed I live in Oxford uk which I really appreciate for the millions of tourists that flock through here and buy quite a few of my prints….yet me and other artists are known to whinge that it is not really an arty town and it is more geared to academia than art. Well that is BS really as we all sell work here and hey we are in the middle of Southern England with loads of great towns nearby. Funny enough though sometimes I visit a small town, somewhere not as hyped up as Oxford and I get fabulous reactions and enthusiasm for my art. I love that perspective of seeing opportunity in the unexpected..indeed a little village not too far away is supporting me a bit extra with some projects and these things can grow…6 degrees of separation and all. Keep up the fabulous awareness raising around us artists. Peace 🙂

  16. Great article, Alyson. Many of the comments are very insightful as well.

    To me, what we’re really talking about here is finding your market. Like any business, selling any product or service, you need customers. The reality is that they might not be nearby.

    I moved from Denver, which I consider to be a pretty healthy art market, to a small village in the middle of England. I’ve learned that nobody around here is spending thousands of pounds on large artworks for their walls (which is what I sell)… They spend £30 for a print at Ikea.

    Marketing and ‘merchandising’ are sometimes tough concepts for artists to embrace, or even to accept. But to be commercially successful, e.g. to actually sell enough work to contribute to a meaningful income, you need to know who your customers are and WHERE they are. And then you need to connect with them where they hang out.

    I’ve been frustrated by my efforts at selling my favourite work in the area where I live. So to sell my ‘main product’ I need to venture further afield. And I am also creating different, (smaller) product lines at a lower price point suitable for the local market.

    Some art must be experienced in person for a collector to purchase. This makes internet sales impractical for certain artists. Regardless, I think the key idea is to always be creating work you love, and finding the people who love it, too (enough to buy it).

    I like to imagine that if I lived in San Francisco, New York or even Santa Fe that I would have more sales of my large-format [expensive] artworks, which may or may not be true and will probably never know. I live in Barwell, England so I need to make the most of this reality. In terms of selling art locally, this means making stuff the locals want to buy. I am still working on selling larger works in more distant markets.

    1. I just had another thought about this – most successful businesses thrive by identifying a market and then creating a product or service to meet the needs of those customers. Artists have a harder time because we’re creating the ‘product’ first (from love) and then needing to find someone to buy it. In many ways this is putting the cart before the horse. But creating art not necessarily from the heart but for a certain market is considered ‘selling out’ which could backfire. As a business person, an artist is in a very tough position.

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