In case you missed it last week, Matt Yglesias wrote a provocative piece for Slate arguing that while Washington, D.C., is thriving, it's not all that terrific for artists. In particular, he singles out young artists at the formative stage in their careers, writing that "if you're a semi-employed artist or guitar player it's much more expensive than Philadelphia or Baltimore and still smaller and less interesting than New York City, which has less than one-third our murder rate."
Washington's City Paper’s Ryan Little disagreed, arguing that D.C. tops these other cities because it offers cheap venues, a strong sense of community and a high availability of grants. Little also mentions the accessibility to other major markets, and to a tightly linked community.
"D.C.'s cultural strength comes precisely because the city isn't in the business of manufacturing coolness," he writes. "Unlike New York or L.A., we aren't drowning in ladder climbers and mercenaries. It's generally assumed you have to work another job as a musician/artist/actor in D.C., and there’s a certain spirit of collaboration that’s not fraught with opportunism."
That’s what my good friend and former collaborator Jesse Elliott (of D.C.’s own These United States) always told me about the arts scene in the District. Though Elliott initially moved to Washington to work with me, he saw it as a great place to form a band. He noted the large market of young people with discretionary income (to support venues and music), a relatively inexpensive cost of living (at least compared to Brooklyn), and the ability to work a reasonably skilled "real job" while pursuing a music career.
To shed a little light on this debate, I took a quick look at some figures from the American Community Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics with help from my colleagues Kevin Stolarick, Charlotta Mellander and Taylor Bridges of the Martin Prosperity Institute.
First off, greater D.C. has a relatively low concentration of artists. It has a smaller location quotient (.83 a measure of its relative concentration of artists) than Baltimore (.85) or Philadelphia (.91) though all are beneath the national average (which is 1.0). New York is quite a bit higher than any of these with an arts LQ of 2.6. Washington artists take home an average of $41,118* a year according to the ACS data, less than Baltimore ($46,012) and substantially less than New York ($57,829), but more than Philadelphia ($36,463).
Greater D.C. fares somewhat better when it comes to musicians — its LQ of 1.2 puts it slightly above the national average. That's a larger concentration than either Baltimore (1.0) or Philadelphia (.94) but substantially less than New York (2.1) and Los Angeles (2.4), not to mention Nashville. Washington-based musicians make an average of $34,109, more than Philadelphia ($25,933) but less than Baltimore ($40,636) or New York ($43,512), and a full $20,000 a year less than musicians in L.A.
D.C. is a much better place for writers, authors, and editors, with an LQ of 2.9 and an average salary $75,250 for writers and authors, and an LQ of 2.7 and average salary of $68,710 for editors. By way of comparison, Baltimore has an LQ of .9 for writers and 1.0 for editors, paying $65,610 and $54,320 respectively, while Philadelphia has an LQ of .98 for writers who average $58,070 and an LQ of 1.2 for editors who make an average of $59,560. Greater New York tops them all, with an LQ of 3.7 for writers and authors, and 3.9 for editors who earn $91,740 and $78,900, respectively.
D.C. also stacks up reasonably well on the broad category of arts, entertainment and media workers. It has an above-average concentration of these workers (with an LQ of 1.2), more than Baltimore (1.0) or Philadelphia (.99), but substantially behind L.A. (2.6) and New York (2.5). Arts, entertainment and design workers average $49,986, better than Philadelphia ($39,884) and Baltimore ($44,671) but less than New York ($59,256) or L.A. ($66,075).
One last thing: Last week I posted on the amount of money people in U.S. metros have left over after paying for housing. We took a quick look at these stats for arts, entertainment and design workers, comparing their monthly wages and salaries to the median cost of housing in these metros. In D.C., these workers have an average of $2,465 left over, about the same as their peers in Baltimore ($2,475) but more than Philadelphia ($2,178). This is substantially less than either New York ($3,573) or L.A. ($4,258), even considering the hefty housing tab in those two regions.
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.
*This post incorrectly stated the average salary of an artist in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user IntangibleArts.