In Your Words: D.C. Too Pricey to Be Culturally Relevant?

Patrick Feller / Flickr

Is D.C. becoming culturally irrelevant because artists can’t afford to live here?

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote last week that D.C. is “unhip” because it’s too expensive to live here; Washington City Paper‘s Ryan Little disagreed, writing that the District has abundant opportunities for artists.

Now, Atlantic Cities’ Richard Florida weighs in on the debate by providing the numbers on wages and housing for D.C.-metro artists. Arts, entertainment and design workers in our region have an average of $2,465 left over each month after paying for housing, which is far less than similar workers in New York and Los Angeles. Florida writes:

When all is said and done, D.C. seems like a not-so-great place for visual artists, a slightly better than average place for musicians and a pretty good place for writers and editors. New York and L.A. continue to dominate these fields, particularly arts, design and music, and actually provide a comparatively good living even with their high costs of housing.

A number of you responded on Facebook and Twitter to our questions: Is D.C. “unhip?” Is it because the city is too expensive for artists?

Poet Derrick Weston Brown wrote on Facebook:

I live in MT. Rainier MD and pay in monthly rent for a pretty decent apartment what I paid for a room in a house that I shared with three other people in DC. That’s not including utilities. I learned a long time ago DC is expensive. Unhip? No. Segregated and at times exclusive. Yep.

D.C.-based DJ and co-owner of U Street Music Hall Will Eastman tweeted that D.C. “is expensive, but culturally it’s holding its own.”

@ @ it's hard to live cheaply & make art ANYWHERE. I still have a "day job" & prob always will.
Will Eastman

Bakari Kamau disagreed with the assumption that D.C. lacks cultural relevance, writing on Facebook:

I’m constantly running into talented artists and designers who live in DC. The problem lies with most artists (myself included) failing to form a community and really self promote in inventive, ahem, creative ways.

A number of you wrote that D.C. is “unhip,” but it’s not for a lack of artists:

@ @ D.C. is “unhip” due to the high volume of politicians, lobbyists & journalists.
Matt Small

Others responded that D.C. is indeed expensive, and it’s priced out more than just artists. The District’s housing prices continue to rise, making D.C. one of only two major cities that saw such increases in 2011.

There are some modest rents available in D.C., but they may not be in neighborhoods chock full of galleries and performance venues. The city provides a number of grants to working artists, and there are some nonprofits working to provide affordable housing to artists. But, as DCentric commenter Mike Licht pointed out, finding a cheap place isn’t the only issue:

It’s not about housing, it’s about artist work space. An artist without a studio is a former artist.

That may be a more difficult problem to tackle given the rising demand for space in the District. It’s becoming more and more difficult for artists, particularly musicians, to find spaces to create.

  • Bakari Kamau

    Well written, you hit on a couple of issues that hadn’t occurred to me – payscales in LA and NY for talented designers and artists are MUCH better than in DC. I don’t know if that’s an effect of the scales of those cities themselves (big cities = more potential clients = more demand) or an effect of all these non-profit DC-based associations that want great work on tiny budgets (too much competition + no money = broke designers).

    I’m sure strictly artists have it just as bad – people just aren’t into buying a lot of art here. In NY and LA, art is more culturally relevant. It seems like people strive to be ‘hip’ there. DC’s filled with bureaucrats, lawyers and consultants – more so than any city I can think of. Even though they have money – a lot of them don’t have the space or the permanent housing (or frankly, the taste) to buy the high-priced pieces that get you paid right. Everyone else is just scraping by and not really able to drop hundreds on “pretty pictures”.

    Is the problem that DC is too transient?

    What does the National Gallery of Art do in terms of supporting DC artists? What does the city do to promote cultural events NOT involving the Kennedy Center? What do local artists do with respect to generating connections within these establishments? There are a lot of issues at play.