The plastic arts in a small town

This is an idea that I wrote up in an email to Sarah Hempel. Sarah — a sculptor — is selling her house and moving to a small town in Western Pennsylvania.

For a while now I’ve been intrigued at how to make the arts work, or how to survive as an artist, in a rural community. There are pros and cons to both the big city and the small ville for artists. Cities have galleries and networks. Smaller towns are usually much affordable.

My parents live in a town of 45,000, not too small but not large enough (especially given its locale) to expect anything significant from the arts, at least not on the plains. The idea is to buy a building downtown (one is for sale two doors down from my dad’s shop for 80k) that we would live in upstairs and run an art and craft studio out of downstairs, my wife crocheting/knitting/spinning and me woodworking and sculpting in clay. The hope would be that we’d be able to make some money from sales of our wares, supplemented by teaching crafts to local home-schooled or private school students — and probably holding regular classes in the studio for any bloke off the street.

This probably isn’t an entirely novel idea. In fact, friends of ours in the small town we live in now (of about 14,000 residents) had a very similar idea. The problem in Siloam Springs is that real estate is a lot higher and the buildings downtown generally in a lot worse shape to begin with. One that’s in very nice shape, having previously been a framing gallery and doctor’s office, is on the market for something like $250,000 as I recall. It doesn’t have a second floor for living space, and none of us have capital to get going anyway.

The whole thing is only feasible if we can live in the same building as the studio. We can’t afford mortgage/rent on a house and mortgage/rent on a public building for a studio. And I’m skeptical that, even in the best of scenarios, this idea would provide a very livable wage, unless my sculptures really take off or my wife’s scarves are picked up by Nordstrom’s. Thus, were we to go this route, I’d have to be willing to find a reasonable day job or get some good paying part-time design work.

The city of 45,000 has many more opportunities for part-time jobs than our little Siloam Springs, which is something to note as well. Were decent paying part-time jobs more available here we might not be thinking of moving at all.

Does the idea hold water?


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

7 Responses to The plastic arts in a small town

  1. balm says:

    you need to talk to a friend of mine larry, and another philip and anh. they have both either done something similar or have seriously thought about it. i can get you their numbers if you are interested.

  2. Tim J. says:

    The internet may be part of what can make small towns work for artists. I’m just about to dip my toe into the “daily painting” market that some artists have had so much success with. We’ll see what happens.

    Your idea is intriguing. I had a gallery/studio in downtown Rogers for about a year, but the problem was (as you anticipated) I just did not have the capital to pay rent on a commercial space and a home at the same time. I did have income from the gallery, but it was not *quite* enough to keep up with expenses.

    Lessons are something there is a market for, but in my case, I decided to concentrate on my studio work, which running the gallery and giving lessons made just about impossible.

    A storefront operation has its share of headaches, but it might work, indeed, if you could live “over the shop”.

    In fact, I know a guy in downtown Rogers who is doing that very thing. He owns a furniture and frame shop (he makes the furniture) and his family lives upstairs. They have also been renovating their living space and his woodworking skills come in very handy, there. He’s a great framer.

    He was hoping to sell the place, eventually, and make a good profit from the renovation, but with the market now…

  3. Sarah says:

    I like the idea, but I’m also having trouble making it work for me. I’m having trouble making the whole sculpture thing work for me. I’m in debt and cannot make anything new until I pay it down, or at least have hope to pay it down. It is so frustrating that I want to give up the whole deal quite often.

    In my opinions, this is one of the biggest flaws in capitalism. The things people really need to flourish- healthy families, farms, art, music, dance, etc. don’t tend to pay off economically. Things we don’t need such as video games earn the creators a fortune. It is painfully unfair.

    I have been toying with the idea of creating a program where businesses, such as banks, adopt an artist-in-residence. They get charity points and the artist gets some patronage. The arts flourished in Renaissance Italy because of patrons and the Church. Neither of which exist in any real way today.

    Yeah, you are totally right that Protestants tend not to get art. This gives me a headache.

  4. pNielsen says:

    Debt is killer. I was blessed with a father who taught me to shy away from it whenever possible. Right now the only debt we have is our mortgage, but we still don’t have any capital except what we might be able to get out of our house. Which would have to go into the next building anyway.

    At first read I like your idea of businesses sponsoring an artist. Need to give it some more thought.

  5. wordlily says:

    Interesting. Of the items in Sarah’s list, one item is heavily subsidized by the US government …

  6. Debt and sculpture is a double-edged sword. People want finished work, but I don’t have the money to fund the work. So either no work gets done, or I get a loan. I have in the past worked on commissioned projects which work well because the client pays up front, but what about a sculpture idea that just has to be made client or no client? Do you make it anyway? Even if it costs you $4000? Well, I did. I’m glad the work is in the world, but I’m refraining from more sculptures. Tis a pity.

    Yeah, if the government can subsidize banks, why can’t they subsize me?

  7. pNielsen says:

    The scale and material of your work is such that I can understand the need for a lot of up front capital without the benefit of a commission. I use an old kiln I found on Ebay instead of building a soda kiln just because I can’t justify, at this point, going into debt for it.

    On subsidies, from Catch 22:

    “Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down.

    His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.”

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