While on national book tour for my debut novel, Oil and Marble, my husband and I are searching for a new spot to settle down. When this is all over, we may return to Los Angeles, we may not. While every city seems to have some appeal, Durham jumped out as a potential new home. No decisions have been made, but the city struck me as a place where artists can not only survive, but thrive.
If you’re an artistic type, here’s why you should consider moving to Durham.
1: Patrons Abound. Every artist — from Michelangelo to Adele — needs buyers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, sculptor, actor, musician, writer, graphic designer, chef… you need people who can afford to pay for your art. Durham’s economy is growing, and the city is filled with highly-educated (Duke is based here), cultured people with good jobs and disposable income. That, dear artist friends, describes the perfect patron.
2: Low Cost of Living. The low cost of living in North Carolina not only gives your patrons more money to spend on your work, but it means you’ll pay less on things like rent, food, and entertainment. My husband and I have calculated that living in Durham would cost about 40% of what it costs to live in Los Angeles, New York or DC… You can be an artist here without adding “starving” to your descriptor.
3: DPAC, Durham Performing Arts Center. DPAC opened in 2008 and has quickly become one of the best, most well-attended theaters in the country. It hosts Broadway shows, dance festivals, music concerts and comedy events all in a spectacular new building that lights up downtown. It’s one of those big-city perks that will attract any art-lover.
4. Black Box Theater. So, you’re a theater fan, but you’d rather skip the big Broadway spectacle and see local productions of classic plays or original material. You have lots of options in Durham: Man Bites Dog, Little Green Pig, Common Ground, and the Bartlett Theater are just a few of the great theater spaces in town. There’s even a Meisner-based acting studio for those of you who want to deepen your own acting craft.
5: Third Friday. Every third Friday of the month, art galleries open their doors in the evening to welcome locals and visitors to shop for art amidst a happy, bubbling crowd. I love a good gallery walk and think every serious art city should have one, to help cultivate the creative community and connect artists to buyers. This one scores on all fronts.
6. Nasher Museum of Art. Duke University’s art museum is truly a jewel — it’s home to a great collection of art ranging from Medieval and traditional African works to modern and contemporary masterpieces. I also found classical antiques alongside Russian and Asian pieces. But my favorite part were the exhibitions which took me on a journey through a wide range of contemporary art. This museum felt like the beating heart of a vibrant art community in and around Duke’s campus.
7. The Regulator Bookshop. I’m biased; I did a signing at this cool indie bookstore on 9th (and left a few autographed copies behind), so it will always have a place in my heart, but I loved the feel of this bookstore. The Regulator is on a bustling street filled with restaurants and shops, and it seems to embody Durham itself: unpretentious, yet serious about culture, and most importantly, big-hearted.
8: The Art of Food: Everyone I talked to raved about Durham’s food scene — from food trucks and the farmers’ market to local diners and fine dining. Durham is a growing hot spot for chefs and foodies alike and that gives the city a creative, cultured vibe.
9: Renovation Central: Everywhere in Durham, old industrial buildings have been renovated into hip restaurants, apartments, and businesses. Inside, there’s exposed brick and duct work along with a feeling that the history of Durham is thumping into the present. Everything feels like an artist’s loft. Some of my personal favorites? Fullsteam Brewery, West Village Apartments, and the American Tobacco Campus — one of the coolest, most visionary renovations projects I have ever seen.
10: Nature/Trails. Whenever I’m stuck on a creative problem, there’s nothing like a walk in the woods to lead me to the answer, and I loved Durham for having so many options: from Duke Forest to the Al Buehler Cross Country Trail. Plus, the place is so green and with both the beach and mountains less than three hours away, you’ll have plenty of nature to inspire.
11: Proximity to Other Cultural Hubs. If you run out of artistic inspiration or work in Durham, there’s lots nearby to bridge the gap — the capital of Raleigh (and the wealthy suburb of Cary) is an easy 30 minute drive. Chapel Hill, home to UNC, is less than 20 minutes. And even Winston-Salem, home to Wake Forest and a bustling art community of its own, is only about an hour away.
A quick word on politics:
With the new anti-transgender law passed by the state legislature, some businesses are backing out of North Carolina. My husband and I are admittedly Hollywood liberal types, so we are outraged by the law, too. Before we arrived, we wondered if we could move to North Carolina, considering the current political climate.
But every single person we met in Durham spoke out openly against the law — without any prompting from us — and expressed anger and embarrassment. Plus, many individual, public restrooms have been changed to gender neutral bathrooms; either sex could use them — a quiet, but effective form of subversion. All of that made us feel better…
But it was a conversation in Washington DC (another contender for our future home) that convinced me to not just be okay with moving to Durham, but to ADVOCATE artists moving there: Sometimes you need men on the inside to properly fight the battle.
Durham itself seems like a liberal bastion, but it sits in North Carolina… And if all artists, creatives, and liberal types stop moving to the state, we will lose that ground. If you’re a liberal like me, you’ll know we need to put external financial pressure on the state to change the law, but we also need to apply cultural pressure from the inside.
Artists broaden minds and hearts — that’s what we do. It’s our JOB to help people understand themselves and relate to others… We are agents of change.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t let the new law chase us away. Perhaps we should let it pull us in. My fellow artists, we want to affect change, don’t we? It’s our reason for being, to guide people toward a new way of seeing the world. To broaden a mind or a heart. Change may be slower in some places, but it is coming. And don’t you want to help bring that change about? If you are a “fight the good fight” type, here’s a place where that fight is still being waged — and where you can still make a difference.