Big Fish in a Small Pond, Begone!


I’ve been struggling with whether or not to move to NYC for a while now, and in addition to the exorbitant rents, the gentrification, the overcrowding and the pollution, one of the things that keeps me hesitating is the idea of relocating itself. The common assumption is that the next step in a successful arts career post-regional success is to move somewhere that’s a national hub for your profession, impact on local communities and national-level hubs alike be damned. If you stay local, it signals that you’re throwing in the towel, or worse yet, that you’re a washout – yesterday’s “after the break” story in today’s 24 hour news cycle. “There’s NYC, and then there’s the Midwest.”

I’m wary of the notion that regionalism is inherently questionable, viable only as an intermediate stepping stone by default. On the surface, this seems reasonably intelligent, if social darwinist in nature – the great artists get uplifted, the merely passable ones get shunted aside to fare better elsewhere. The reality is more economic in origin, rather than merit-based – national level hubs serve as a weeding out engine, not only of peoples presumed to be less talented (and by who?), but of people whose work doesn’t map as economically viable within the hub’s machinations. If anything, the media and technology industries that hire within national-level hubs, and that increasingly provide bread-and-butter gigs for artists of all types after an indeterminate number of unpaid internships, create a “there’s always the post office” dynamic for their workers. Such work all too often moulds people’s talents into a narrow definition of creative expression, if one is allowed to express oneself at all. Imagine an experimental poet trying to slog through their days working as a technical writer, or a conceptual artist relegated to the marketing team. Even allowing for employment in numerous arts organizations (as well as smaller, more creatively-driven small businesses), there are more Bukowski-in-the-ad-sorting-room sorts of jobs available than Frances-Ha-at-the-arts-org ones. While I’m saying this thousands of miles away from NYC, the pattern seems self-evident upon inspection, especially when you consider how closely it resembles the dynamics in another arts-magnet-turned-creative-class-cash-cow hub, the SF Bay Area.

Further, the attempts at making a place for regional artists don’t fare much better than the dismissal of them. Consider “Don’t worry, you’re a big fish in a small pond.” All well intentions aside, this frequently serves as a form of micro-aggression against emerging and marginalized artists. It’s saying “there there, less-than,” rather than applauding the tenacity to create wherever one lands. It dismisses creators who stay local, while inferring the “national-level super-artist” mythos that drives everything from artistic elitism to urban gentrification, as anyone who has recently tried to get their work hung at an “important” NYC gallery, or to find an apartment within easy access to said gallery, can attest.

An aside: when I advocate for viable regional arts hubs, I am not just talking about teaching classes through a non-profit or community program. If anything, assuming that serving communities exclusively in that way is the only ethical option for working artists diminishes the range of possibilities available. It unintentionally (or passive-aggressively) reinforces the “less-than” dynamic – it can be taken as a variation on “real artists don’t teach,” as well as more directly asserting that “real organizers aren’t FT artists.”

It’s the perniciousness of these assumptions that lead me to believe that the pressure to move to a national-level hub is rooted in flawed-if-not-corrupt concepts – nevertheless, these assumptions in all their forms, both regional and national, drive enough of the bottom line that I continue to wrestle with whether or not to bite the bullet. That said, instead of a national level mythos that excludes or downplays anything that doesn’t fit within its narrow purview, why not reverse the trend of defunding regional arts programs, and focus on building sustainable arts careers wherever people happen to be living? The internet can play an important role in this, although it also has its drawbacks, its tendency to act as a global-level slush pile being one of the more critical ones. Regardless, the arts should be allowed to flourish wherever they happen to spring up, in whatever way they manifest themselves – not only in locations like NYC, LA, Chicago, Nashville or Miami, but everywhere where someone puts pen to paper, brushes paint to canvas or plays a note.

Thanks to @MHarrisPerry and @libshipwreck for brain food.