Tips for Artists on How to Settle into a New City

Margaret Carrigan
Aug 3, 2018 1:00PM
Paul Balmer
Edge of a River, 2018
Caldwell Snyder Gallery

Many an artist has moved more than once. The reasons are wide-ranging—from the promise of more work opportunities to cheaper studio square-footage rates. One thing’s for sure, though: Being the new kid on the block is rarely easy. So what does it take to get comfortable in an unknown city’s creative scene? From going on friend dates to using a paper map, here are five ways to navigate the rocky road of relocation.

Make new connections out of old ones

There’s an old, slightly cynical saying that success is all in who you know. But when it comes to making a successful move to a new city or country, sometimes it’s about who others know. “The Central American art scene is small if you compare it with others around the world, but it’s characterized by being very supportive,” said Honduran performance artist Pável Aguilar, who further explained that his regional network was helpful when he relocated to the German city of Chemnitz last year.

Despite having traveled to Europe before, Aguilar experienced some culture shock when he moved to Chemnitz. “The customs, the language, the weather—it was totally different than anywhere else I’d lived,” he said. To help acclimate, Aguilar reached out to other Latin American artists and curators in the region, knowing that it was a tight-knit circle. “It was no surprise when many had close friends in Central America who I knew, which helped facilitate a lot of meetings,” he said.

Korean painter Hyegyeong Choi also went back to her roots when she moved from Seoul to New York City in 2010. She found it easy to make friends, especially because she felt like the two cities are similar in pace and style—but that didn’t keep her from feeling isolated occasionally. She asked her mates from back home to set her up on friend dates with people they knew in her new city, which helped her feel a little more like herself. “Even though I spoke English well, it was hard to live life without speaking my own language—I’m much funnier in Korean,” she laughed.

Talk to strangers

For a crash course in a new city, consider throwing out the cautionary “stranger danger” adage—at least under the right circumstances. That’s how Colombian performance artist Daniela Medina Poch settled in when she moved to Amsterdam in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree. Because her socially engaged practice often relies on collaborative performances and happenings in the public sphere, she wanted to get to know the local scene—and fast.

The best way to do that, she found, was to cold-call other artists who were doing like-minded work. “When I first moved and I barely knew anyone, whenever I saw an artwork I liked, I contacted the artist and asked her or him for a coffee,” Medina Poch explained. Often, they agreed, and her strategy helped her quickly get to know others outside of her school circle and become involved with the community.

Venezuelan-Ecuadorian artist Ana Naves also had a knack for striking up conversations with everyone when she first moved to Bogotá, Colombia, earlier this year. As much as she was interested in meeting other artists, she was also curious to make the acquaintance of her new city—and, more practically, figure out where she was in it.

Naves recommends striking up conversations with taxi drivers and fellow passengers on public transit, adding that people were generally happy to tell her a bit about a certain place or area. To that end, she also suggests foregoing Google and investing in a paper map. “I think it is a good exercise to internalize the city’s structure,” she said, adding that it makes you take notice more of the environment and people around you.  

Embrace social media

Naves may eschew digital maps, but she advocates using online tools like Facebook when trying to settle into a new city, especially because a change of place and pace can upend even the most finely tuned schedule. “It’s simple, but it’s a big help to have regular reminders in one place for shows, events like concerts or openings, and lectures,” she explained.

Social media may do more than just help you get to know a new cultural scene, though—it might also help you get your work seen, according to Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. In 2012, one year after she finished grad school, Ferdowsi Kline relocated from her hometown of Nashville to New York City. “I really wanted to be in a community of other working artists where I could continue learning and contributing to the discourse of art,” she explained, even though her first studio was “basically a closet in a building underneath the Williamsburg Bridge.”

As she looked for new ways to connect with artist peers, Ferdowsi Kline began posting and crediting images of work by other artists she was seeing around town on her Instagram. “Developing the practice of generosity goes a very long way,” she said, adding that many artists returned the favor. Soon, she had built a substantial network and was selling her own paintings through the online platform, which had the added benefit of helping her pay rent—eventually, for a studio larger than a closet, and not under a bridge.

Do as the locals do

Photographer Ding Ren says she had always wanted to try living in Europe, so when her partner received an email about his research from a Dutch professor out of the blue, they made an impulsive decision to move to Amsterdam from Washington, D.C., in 2010. Ren’s eagerness prompted her to try to get ahead of the curve before she even got there, and she signed up for newsletters and events at all of the city’s museums and galleries she could find online.

But when she finally arrived, Ren said she decided on a more “Joan Didion approach, as a cultural observer.” That led her to her first art opening, at a pop-up gallery in a now-defunct squatted space—something she never would have stumbled across in her newsletter briefings. “There are so many different shops, cafés, and alternative spaces throughout the city, and the best way is to happen upon them without planning,” she explained.

Video artist Andrew Norman Wilson concurs, now that he’s traded in New York City for Los Angeles to help offset his seasonal affective disorder. Even though he had thoroughly researched the sunny locale before moving, L.A. still managed to surprise him once he started frequenting the local hotspots. “Going to El Matador Beach on a hot Saturday or Sunday will tell you things that the Los Angeles Wikipedia page could never communicate,” he said.

It wasn’t just the beach life that threw Wilson for a loop, though, since L.A.’s art scene also proved different in person. He noted that he initially found exhibitions “often lacking the rigor of those in New York or European cities I’ve spent time in,” even at an institutional level. So Wilson turned his sights to the local grassroots spaces, where he found plenty of room for growth in the city’s artist-run spaces and organizations. “Because the stakes aren’t quite as high as back East, there’s more room—literally and figuratively—for experimentation,” he said.

Find ways to collaborate

As an artist, perhaps one of the best ways to get to know your proverbial neighbors in a new town is to work with them, even on a small or informal scale. For instance, after Wilson got a feel for the Los Angeles art landscape, he began hosting an interdisciplinary event-slash-party with his friend and fellow artist, Blaine O’Neill. Though it has a fixed date and venue—every other Wednesday night at General Lee’s in Chinatown—he said they let the shindig shift in form. “We call it something different every time, but we usually just share the details as Instagram stories and make events on Facebook,” he said, adding that guest DJs have ranged from curator and critic Aria Dean to sculptor Mathis Altmann.

Serbian-born photographer Vesna Pavlović took a similar tack after she moved to Nashville from Seattle in 2009 for a teaching job at Vanderbilt University. “You can see so many good musicians play here, and I wanted to tap into that,” she explained, adding that she started frequenting small gig venues where she could talk to the bands. Now, she’s working with local folk musicians to recreate traditional Serbian songs for her latest video project. “I’ve moved around a lot, and each place offers something different,” she said. “Any place you can create art is productive, but it’s worth pursuing collaborative opportunities—you never know where it might lead.”

Margaret Carrigan

Cover image: Paul Balmer, Edge of a River, 2018. Courtesy of Caldwell Snyder Gallery.