Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

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Welcome to Iowa. We have ample square dancing and corn. I live in the star between the lady’s legs. Original photo by Marxchivist. Remixed under Creative Commons license.

I never fit in in my hometown. My parents did. They were two farm folk-become schoolteachers. Probably the weirdest thing about them — at first glance, at least — was that they only had one kid.

I mean Christ almighty. Look at me, aged 16.

Even when I was small, new people quickly identified me as the weird one. First I was precocious, then a tomboy, then a smart ass, then I hit high school, cut all my hair off, dyed what was left, and got piercings (eartop cartilage piercings in Norfolk, Nebraska 1998 were like becoming a flapper in 1926). I became an art kid.

And that’s why I always always always wanted to live in a big city. But five years in college and a degree in Painting later, I live in Des Moines, Iowa — a metro of a whole half a million. It’s no cultural mecca and I’m still closer to weird on this town’s spectrum. I get a lot of questions about why a creative would want to stay in flyover country.

Every week or so I absolutely fantasize about getting on a bus to NYC. But in day-to-day life I really, really like living in Des Moines. There are ticks under the “pros” side of living in a smaller city. It helps that Des Moines is, once you burrow into it, a very wannabe-hip city. We aspire to Portlandism so we have our share of quirks — like the zombie-themed restaurant a fabulously-talented chef is opening this year, or my favorite bar, or the just-outside-the-metro stop animation community group housed in an Airstream trailer. And we have our offbeats. And we’re very, very proud of our marriage equality.

But even if Des Moines wasn’t drifting towards cool, there are perks to living in flyover country, and it certainly doesn’t hold creatives back to stay here.

First, it’s effing cheap, yo.

Real estate here is CHEAP. The average rent for a three bedroom apartment in these parts is $800. You don’t even want to hear about my mortgage. If you’re sticking to Des Moines proper and not venturing out to the ‘burbs, you’d have no problem finding a fab house between $130,000 and $160,000. When we bought a house, I felt like a sellout — but we can afford to own a home because we don’t live in San Fransisco or Miami. I don’t have to sacrifice as much for my career here.

Property taxes are low. Registering a car is cheaper. FOOD is WAY cheaper. And so is going out, though if you’re a fan of douchey bars you can pay big city prices on booze. This is great, because my two favorite things to spend money on are food and art supplies, and I have more cash for both.

Every day I wake up and write or draw or paint or wrangle artists, and every day Scott works in an office fully-stocked with Wii games and beer. It’s awesome to be able to work like we do without having to scrounge. We don’t make the big bucks, but staying in Iowa allows us to do what we love. Every day.

There’s room for experimentation.

Materials or access to facilities is often cheaper in The Flyover. More importantly, as a friend said, people are less jaded here. That has its downsides, but it’s nice to have people enthusiastically and nepotistically cheering you on when you announce your next hairbrained plan.

Flyover Country has short travel times.

I also don’t think people from large cities get the size difference between a big town and a small one. Here in the Midwest, we spend less time getting from place to place. There is NO TRAFFIC HERE. Over and over I’ve heard newcomers remark on our rush hour with a scoff. Saves a load of time. That, and flyover cities often have a network of nearby cities within driving distance. A friend pointed out that you could be stuck in traffic in a city for the entire time it takes us to drive to Minneapolis.

And then we have big fish syndrome.

I will be the first to admit it’s nice. People are, again, less jaded, and there is simply less competition. There are fewer events or people or products to divide your audience’s attention. And because it’s cheap you can just do new things all the time and fuck up faster.

The Internet exists.

I absolutely couldn’t have stayed here in a time before the WWW. But now we can enjoy our flyover state cost of living and sell goods worldwide. Artists in my city are showing in Toronto and Chicago and GENEVA and Miami and LA — and making a living on Etsy and cleaning up at Renegade Craft Fairs.

Creatives all over the country are flocking to cheaper cities. Detroit is this unreal “blank canvas” where artists are buying homes for as little as $100. Even Silicon Valley-types see the potential in towns like mine. We’re not even a second-tier city, but we still have creatives moving in.

I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to do when I graduated. Staying in Des Moines meant I’d work harder in a few areas than other artists. I’d have to meet people on my own, instead of networking organically like I could in person. I have to be a lot more self-driven to be a creative in flyover country, but that’s the main pitfall. We all have high speed internet now, and if a painter scrounges together the money to buy a ticket on the Megabus to Chicago or to pay FedEx to take a painting to Toronto, creatives in flyover country can show internationally while reaping the benefits of smaller town life.

At the root of things, an artist’s job is to tell stories about their culture. I have to go so far as to say we shouldn’t be bunched up in three or four places in a country. Luckily, it’s not such a bummer to live in my bitty metropolis.

Comments on Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

  1. I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea you were from Iowa until this post.

    I had lived in Iowa for my entire life until September and now live on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities. But I completely agree with everything you just said about Des Moines… and most “cities” in Iowa, really. I lived in Ames/Ankeny for the last 8 years and if you’re looking for it and trying, you can be a super creative person and really thrive in a small town. And like you said, it’s way more affordable than living in a big city… even if it might not be quite as exciting.

    I don’t know, I just really enjoyed this post 🙂 I love Des Moines. And Iowa in general.

    • So many Iowans and Quad City folk, WOW! I’m originally from the Iowa side of the QC area and my fiance is from a smaller city about 30 minutes from Flint. We live in Los Angeles now, but have talked about what it would be like to still live in the Midwest. Certain things would be easier, like making a zombie movie, for instance. Nobody would hassle us about permits and finding volunteers would be a piece of cake!

      Although, I find myself defending Los Angeles every time I talk to old friends and family. They like to make fun of our traffic and high rent prices and even our sissy weather… but I love it. You’ve definitely shown a side of Midwest life I’d forgotten about (or never had a chance to experience) and forced me to think about and remember why I love my big sunny city! There are certainly pros and cons to all types of living!

  2. I love it! I live in Minneapolis, and while it’s not as cheap as Des Moines or some other Midwestern cities, it’s a heck of a lot more affordable than the coasts. And our arts scene is incredible! We have the second most theater seats per capita (behind NYC), a huge indie music scene, several dance companies, a world-class orchestra, and lots of very talented visual artists. We’ve got art fairs, music festivals, artist housing, and a supportive, educated community to make it possible for art to thrive here.

    I agree, Cat–artists can be happy and successful here in “flyover country.”

    • Part of the appeal of Flyover Country is the proximity to other great cities. I don’t know how long it takes to drive across LA or NYC in average traffic (I’m guessing a pretty long time), but I can get to Minneapolis (which is lovely) in three hours, Omaha in two, Kansas City in three, Iowa City in two, and Chicago in 5-6.

      I get the impression that people on the coast think it’s perfectly normal to be in stop-and-go traffic on the interstate for two hours both ways to work, but driving two hours uninterrupted at 80 miles an hour through cornfields to get somewhere is somehow the worst thing in the entire world.

      • Ha! This is a great point. I grew up in the DC metro area. It is an understatement to say traffic is awful. I now live in West Virginia and now treasure the long trips through the country versus wasting my life away in gridlock.

      • I grew up in Hastings NE and moved to the Dallas area about four years ago. The traffic KILLS me! I would much rather drive the hour and half at 80 mph to Lincoln than sit in traffic for an hour. Blagh. Yay for mid-westerners!

  3. Well-written! Even though I’m no artist, my fiance and I occasionally have arguments – he wants small town life, I want big city life. I could see a town like yours being the perfect compromise for us. You may have effectively made the right argument for me to see his side of things, despite him trying for years. 🙂 Thank you!!

    • My husband and I have exactly the same argument. And although we’re not in the Midwest (Manchvegas NH, what up!), small cities definitely fit the bill for us.
      We both have ridiculously easy commutes, we’re not that far from things (1 hr to Boston, the Seacoast, the Mountains, or pick), and the community actually feels like a community.

      My favorite time of year in NH? Primary Season! The political weight of the nation squishes into a 100,000 person community for a few weeks and it explodes into big city awesomeness. And then once it’s over, it’s right back to normal. Don’t know how much Iowa gets of that, but I love it.

  4. Thanks for this great post. I’ve lived in Iowa City for over 20 years and aside from the rather claring omission of no ocean, no mountains, (I’m a Northwesterner by birth and upbringing) it is my most favorite hometown, for all the reasons you site. I also think it is easier to cultivate a loyal clientele for your art.

  5. Love your post. I grew up in rural nowhere in the northwest. I live in Denver now and even that’s fairly reasonable compared to coastal metro areas. The only reason I’m not farther out on the plains is the mountains–they are inspiration, recreation and relaxation for me!

  6. I am almost envious! I am American-born but live with my husband in Oslo, Norway, which is one of the most expensive cities to live in. Last year we took a trip to upstate New York (like 4 hours drive out of NYC) on business and it was, as you said “effing cheap!” I almost wanted to stay!

    That being said, living in Norway is great for artists because they are supported by the government and a lot of the artists I know can actually make a living at it.

    • I’ve been in super-expensive Yokohama, Japan, for six years, but in a few months my husband and I are moving to super-cheap upstate New York. To my hometown! Can’t wait.

  7. Awesome post! Small town “aspiring to Portlandism” reminds me so much of Gainesville, FL where my husband and I met. And I have to say this is the first time I’ve thought I’d like to visit a midwestern town after all…

    • Perspective is a funny thing. I live in Portaland and grew up an hour or so outside the metro area in the country, and Portland feels like a small town to me. 🙂

  8. all the reasons you listed are why my SO and i are planning on moving to “flyover country” or slightly further west once the housing market recovers on the east coast.

    i live in a city that’s commonly considered a suburb of the nation’s capital, and i hate it here. less people would be an utter godsend. lower cost of living? same thing.

  9. Great post – this sums up many of the reasons that I love living in a midwestern city (Detroit) as well. I’m not an artist, but I love the chance to make a decent living, own a home, and participate in local arts, culture, and politics, all while pursuing my own non-work interests.

    My only request is to not refer to Detroit as a “blank canvas.” Sure, houses are cheap and the city has lost a lot of its population since its heyday in the middle of the 20th century. It’s also the largest city in Michigan, and home to over 700,000 people. This article sums up my feelings on the subject:

    Thanks for highlighting so many of the reasons for living in flyover territory!

  10. My hubby and I are both midwest artists as well. We’re on the Illinois side of the Quad cities. At first, you can be fooled into thinking there’s no art community out here, but a few dropped e-mails and a drink and draw later and you find out that there are artists stuffed into every nook and cranny, just waiting for another creative to get in touch with. We’ll be hosting another Drink and Draw this Friday, which is a great way to blow off steam with other people.
    The internet really has taken us a long way. I’m glad I don’t live in a big city, even if the shopping choices are fantastic. That’s what shipping is for, yes?

  11. Heck yeah for Detroit! I have heard from so many artists here about how much of a blank canvas Detroit is. My hope is that one day Detroit will be known more for what has worked for the artists, film makers, musicians, photographers then what hasn’t worked for manufacturing and politics.

  12. We moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Grand Island, NE right as the economy hit bottom for all of the reasons you mentioned. Even though we’re getting itchy to move to a college town (husband plans to start his doctorate in 2012), I appreciate your reminder of why we chose to live here right now. If we didn’t live in Nebraska, we wouldn’t have decent jobs, a house we love, and a comfortable lifestyle that will allow us to save for when we do move. People are genuinely friendly, and I can do things I wouldn’t be able to in PA, like serve on the board of the area’s only pro-choice health clinic. (Okay, the conservatism can stink, but I can help make a difference more directly here.)

    I think my husband’s biggest complaint is that, as a classical trumpeter, he can’t find a ton of gigs outside of Lincoln/Omaha and can create only so many of his own. But in general, you’re absolutely right. Saying goodbye to Nebraska will be hard!

  13. Brava! I particularly like one of your last sentences: “we shouldn’t be bunched up in three or four places in a country.” the offbeats and creatives need to be everywhere.

  14. Hear Hear! I’m constantly surrounded by complaints about the place I’m living now (Augusta, GA). It’s somewhat disappointing that friends who have grown up here can’t seem to see the appeal that I do. First off, my husband owns a guitar shop that couldn’t even have existed in a larger city (he’d be upsetting too many competitors). Second, it’s got that wannabe hip vibe that is actually manifesting a pretty amazing art scene, with galleries and organizations supporting young artists and designers. It’s like we’ve gotten in on the ground floor of a cultural revolution! That and you can’t beat the bar specials and restaurant prices here. I love having relatives visit from larger cities (mainly LA and DC), and realize the perks of our area instead of how “small town” it is.

  15. Like. I’m from Kentucky. People are like “HARHAR ARE YOU MARRIED TO YOUR COUSIN” and I’m like “HARHAR I live in one of the nicest apartments I’ve ever seen and rent is $850 a month. And I have a YARD, BITCH. And my drive to work is 10 minutes.”

  16. I’ll just leave this here. Beer list from *my* favorite bar in Des Moines:

    Hope you’ve got some reading time. Oh, did I mention I can get a drink there with little hassle on a Saturday night at 11pm, and that even many of their fancy high proof beers don’t cost more than $5? Cuz yeah.

    That’s one of my favorite things to brag about in DSM, anyway. Oh, also, I’m posting this comment from the 12th (and top) floor downtown office of the startup I work for. Yeah, startup, not a big C. We’re not in someone’s garage, we’re across the hall from the Wells Fargo Financial Advisors. There’s over a million square feet of leasable space available just in downtown, so rents aren’t exactly high. It’s also connected to a skywalk system, meaning you can get lunch about anywhere you want downtown in the middle of a blizzard and leave your coat on the rack.

    • Scott – love to chat with you re; the start-up tech scene in DSM and Iowa etc. Have Cat give ya my email addy. (I’m the Offbeat Bride intern …)

  17. Oh, Cat, how did I not know you were from Norfolk? I grew up in Madison (yes, Nebraska!), transplanted to Des Moines (which I loved much like you do!) and then on to Chicago (which was also phenomenal). I’m back in Lincoln now, getting ready to marry that boy from Madison with whom I never really fell out of love (and picking Offbeat Bride clean of ideas), while making all sorts of adjustments regarding falling back into the “life in Nebraska” patterns, but it makes me feel so good to know that not only do we sort of share roots, but that you love Des Moines as much as I did. Thanks for sharing this piece of yourself!

  18. Hooray! As an Iowa native (who now lives in Nebraska, but has SO MUCH Iowa pride), I love this post. I, too, grew up planning my escape out of the Midwest. Now that I’m in the adult bill paying world I realize how great it actually is here. With the money we save on rent and everything else, we can actually afford to travel and see our friends on the coasts, then come back home to our small cities with their charm and love. Also, I was so proud when we got married and on the lisence there was a box for both parties to mark their gender. Allowing same sex marriage: Keep it up Iowa.

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