Art & Mind

Culture Lives Where You Are

Bikes against a wall painting in Zurich by Timon Klauser

One of my favorite Lazy Sunday rituals is to turn on YouTube and watch/listen to videos tapping into my voyeuristic affinity for home tours. Apartment tours, tiny home tours, #vanlife, you get the idea. My nosey self just loves to dive in on how others are decorating and utilizing their spaces around the world.

I usually start off watching videos shared by New Yorkers, then branch out to other parts of the U.S. and Canada, then travel around the world hopping from South Korea, Australia, Central Asia, pop down to South Africa, then jaunt up to Western Europe, finishing in Old Blighty. Sadly, most South Americans have decided they want me to mind my own business and stay out of their house.

Fair enough.

A week or so ago, I came across a particular apartment tour in NYC on a channel that's a little more fawning than it needs to be about their love for all things New York. On this episode, Emily Kohn, the young woman who lived in this particular tiny studio is in her 20s, was born and raised on the Upper West Side, and loves her space -- all 170 ft2 of it (that's just under 16 m2).

She lived in what are often called "micro spaces" in the West. Now, I don't recall her sharing how much she paid each month for her flat, but based on the comments on the YouTube video and her TikTok, whatever the rent is, it isn't worth it.

Now cue the arguments over how aaaaahhhh-mazing it is live in New York, how the trade off is worth it to live in a city full of so much vibrant culture and nightlife, and other stereotypes about anywhere that isn't New York.

Which got me to thinking about that old chestnut. Do people think that grand bastions of arts & culture (e.g., London, Paris, Cairo, Florence, Seoul, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, Cape Town, Sydney) are the only places to experience art & culture?

I ask because it seems that native-born residents of these cities seem to believe it to be true. No disrespect to Emily Kohn intended, but I would argue that culture doesn't start in these epic centers and radiate out into the rest of the nation and world for the "lesser folk" to enjoy years later. I know it can seem that way when you look at sensations like popular Broadway and West End plays, the Next Big ThingTM in pop, hip hop, and rock, or fashion trends that we will later look back on with regret.

Art gallery gazing by Zalfa Imani

Yes, we can name plenty of born-and-raised trendsetters and celebs from Paris, Chicago and Seoul who changed the game. But if we look at the numbers, I think it would show that most of the people we think of as cultural icons, legends of their field, and tastemakers in their own right actually hail from other parts of their native countries.

And most of these artists began perfecting their craft well before they stepped foot in the Big Apple or the City of Lights. Gone are the days when artists felt that the only way to have a vibrant and profitable career was to pack up and move to L.A., New York or London. Many still do, but plenty of them -- thanks to the interweb -- do not.

Quite a few actors now live in other parts of the country (or world), and only travel to L.A., New York or London when they have to. Artists can create in their homes, studios, backyards, and garages right there in Boise, Busan and Brest with only an occasional trip to San Francisco, Seoul or Paris. Writers can build worlds beyond our imagination working at their desks in Meridian, Mannheim and Middelburg without feeling as if they have to pack up and relocate to Atlanta, Berlin or Cape Town.

Sure, most of the world may not be aware of the big name A-listers until they venture to their cultural capitals to try and get their books published, their art into the most popular galleries, or their name in lights on the big screen. But the art and the culture is born elsewhere, and it can be enjoyed in those places equally.

Kohn mentioned in the video that she's in a city brimming with museums, theater and art around every corner. She has access to Lincoln Center, the Met and more, right outside her door. And I agree that living in close proximity to those places is a gift, but it's important to note that many New York residents don't take advantage of those places unless they have friends or family visiting from out of town.

Like so many other big city dwellers, most New Yorkers don't go to the theater or visit museums after they officially graduate or leave school (unless they have friends who work in those industries). A lot of the patrons that support New York's amazing creative output on a regular basis reside in Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island. Why? Because plenty of them simply aren't interested in them, and for those who are, they often can't afford to enjoy them.

This reality was brilliantly expressed in one of my favorite lines from the U.S. comedy series Broad City:

"God, I love living in New York City. You just -- You can't beat it. You get to be physically near the cutting edge of art and culture, and then, just a mere decade later, actually afford to experience it."

-- Ilana Wexler

As much as I love living within spitting distance of New York's cultural scene, I know you don't have to live in New York or London or Tokyo or Sydney to make culture a part of your life. I switched my blog from a general freelancer-sharing-ideas-about-freelancing focus to an arts & culture focus back in 2014. And in 2014, I was still living in my hometown of Indianapolis. Not a city most people would consider a hub of arts & culture ... and yet.

While living In the Circle City, I attended plays (local mainstream, fringe, and touring Broadway shows), museums, lectures, concerts, film festivals, comedy shows, dance performances, and art galleries regularly. I wrote about the poetry and music scene for my blog and for other publications. I served as a judge for a local music competition thanks to my role as a concert reviewer and journalist for an Indy-based music publication.

I volunteered for the Broad Ripple Art Fair for multiple years, took painting classes at the Indianapolis Arts Center, and lumbered my way through dance classes at the Jordan Academy of Dance (before it sadly closed). I still have my souvenir mug from my first tour of a Broadway show (it was Fosse starring the amazing Valarie Pettiford), gratefully enjoyed at Clowes Hall. I also still have my signed DVD of A Dirty Shame, which John Waters' inked after I saw his one-man show at the Walker Theatre. The Indiana Black Expo was a staple of my summer fun list for the majority of my adolescence and young adult life, and anywhere I found art in unexpected places, I was happy to share with anyone who would listen.

Granted, Indianapolis isn't small, but it speaks to my point that there is likely a rich and engaging arts & culture scene in your hometown too. Because culture lives where you are -- from Kinshasa to Kansas City to Kyiv. You don't have abandon the small town for the Big City to enjoy the creativity of the world around you.

I'm happy for Kohn and I want her to love her home and the city she treasures so much. But let's do away with the idea that you have to live in NYC to enjoy great museums or theater or stand-up comedy. Artists reside the world-over and many are happy to stay in their hometowns or live in smaller cities to embrace a full and rich life that they might not otherwise have living in a 170 ft2 flat in Manhattan. And art lovers should feel welcome to do the same.

Chinatown mural in Toronto by Candace Nicholson

Top Image: Bikes against a wall painting in Zurich by Timon Klauser | Middle Image: Art gallery gazing by Zalfa Imani | Bottom Image: Chinatown mural in Toronto by Candace Nicholson

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