Special Report

Best American Small Towns for the Arts

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With theaters, museums, and art galleries on seemingly every corner, major metropolitan areas act like magnets drawing in painters, actors, and musicians with hopes of making it big in the big city. Yet for many artists, a tranquil small-town setting might be more conducive to creativity. (For those who prefer the arts in an urban setting, these are America’s culture capitals).

According to Americans for the Arts, 2.6 million adults in the US, or about 1.6% of all workers age 16 or older. were employed in the arts in 2020. The advocacy group reviewed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 11 arts-related occupations or occupational groups: architects; art directors, fine artists, and animators; designers; actors; producers and directors; dancers and chorecreographers; musicians; announcers; writers and authors; photographers; and other artists and entertainers.

To determine the best small arts towns in America, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data on arts establishments and employment from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 County Business Patterns dataset. 

Click here to see the best small arts towns in America
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Regionally, New England holds a special allure for artists, with a total of eight towns on the list. Massachusetts is home to four of these small but vibrant artist colonies. Provincetown, Nantucket, Great Barrington, and Northampton offer art galleries and other venues for artists to exhibit their works. Yet three towns in the Southwest – Taos, Sante Fe, and number one-ranked Marfa in Texas – have also attracted artistic types for decades.

Local art councils sponsor many of the venues and events in the towns on this list and fund local artists. But the artists give back to the community, too. Tourists flock to these places not only to see hamlets surrounded by gorgeous scenery, but to also purchase original art and see live performances. In many ways, the local art communities are a driving economic force in these small towns. (Visit the must-see museums in every state).

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25. Lebanon, NH (Grafton County)
> Arts institutions: 2.2 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 2.2 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 13,623

Founded in 1761, Lebanon was a hub of textile manufacturing as recently as 40 years ago. Today, its arts community centers around the Lebanon Opera House, the Upper Valley Music Center, and the Alliance for the Visual Arts Gallery, where artists can display their art and take classes.

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24. Provincetown, MA (Barnstable County)
> Arts institutions: 5.6 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.6 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 2,730

A 90-minute ferry ride from Boston, at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is a popular vacation spot for the LGBTQ community. Among the town’s cultural centers are the Fine Arts Work Center, which houses a residency program for artists and writers, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

23. Lawrence, KS (Douglas County)
> Arts institutions: 2.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 2.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 96,369

Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street, or “Mass” Street, has been called one of the most beautiful main streets in the US. Although now known for its arts community, based around the Lawrence Arts Center, and for its population of young bands and its annual Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival (the New York Times once hailed it for having “the most vital music scene between Chicago and Denver”), the Midwest town was founded by New England Abolitionists in 1854 who wanted to keep the territory a free state.

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22. Montpelier, VT (Washington County)
> Arts institutions: 2.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 2.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 7,477

Montpelier doubles as both a capital city and a vibrant arts hub. The T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center, named after a local artist, features exhibits from other local artists and the Vermont College of Fine Arts offers notable graduate programs.

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21. Taos, NM (Taos County)
> Arts institutions: 4.6 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 4.6 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 5,967

The city’s connection to the arts dates back to the late 19th century when the Taos Society of Artists planted roots in this Southwestern town. From there, the city’s arts community grew to numerous museums, galleries, and festivals highlighting its unique blend of Pueblo and Spanish cultures.

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20. Santa Cruz, CA (Santa Cruz County)
> Arts institutions: 6.3 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 6.3 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 64,522

Located on Monterey Bay along the California coast, Santa Cruz combines a beachy vibe with a flourishing arts community. The city hosts several art-themed festivals, including the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Film Festival, Capitola Art and Wine Festival, and Santa Cruz Blues Festival.

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19. Camden, ME (Knox County)
> Arts institutions: 7.3 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 7.3 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 3,468

Described as the Jewel of the Maine Coast, Camden is nestled in the state’s mid-coast region where famous artists such as painter Andrew Wyeth and sculptor Louise Nevelson once lived. Artists and photographers have created works of art inspired by the magnificent views of nearby Camden Hills and Penobscot Bay.

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18. Charlottesville, VA (Charlottesville city)
> Arts institutions: 1.8 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 1.8 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 47,096

Charlottesville’s music scene has produced some legendary artists, including Dave Matthews who started his band there while bartending in the city and Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus. Today, the John Paul Jones Arena and the historic Paramount Theater host musical acts of all genres, while classical music lovers can see a classic opera at the Charlottesville Opera.

17. Port Townsend, WA (Jefferson County)
> Arts institutions: 2.5 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 2.5 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 9,551

Situated at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula on the Puget Sound, this historic seaport hosts a world-class jazz festival, as well as blues and fiddle festivals. Visitors can glimpse local art during the Port Townsend Gallery Walks. A mild climate makes sightseeing a year-round experience.

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16. Livingston, MT (Park County)
> Arts institutions: 1.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 1.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 7,575

Although Livingston’s economy is largely agricultural-based, it also boasts a thriving arts community. In addition to galleries featuring local artists, the town is known for its literary heritage, too. Local author Walter Kirn makes his home in the Paradise Valley enclave, and the town offers many bookstores for book lovers to browse.

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15. Nantucket, MA (Nantucket County)
> Arts institutions: 14.2 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 14.2 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 7,984

An island located 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Nantucket has an art community that flourishes due to the efforts of the Nantucket Arts Council, a non‐profit organization that supports the visual, performing, and literary arts through education, grants, scholarships, and events. The group, founded in 1973, sponsors the Nantucket Arts Festival and Shakespeare in the Garden.

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14. Peekskill, NY (Westchester County)
> Arts institutions: 5.0 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.0 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 24,075

Fifty miles from New York City, Peekskill began to attract artists from the city by building live/work studios and lofts. Today, Paramount Hudson Valley, a 1930s-era movie palace, hosts live performances, while art lovers can stroll through the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art

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13. Key West, FL (Monroe County)
> Arts institutions: 7.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 7.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 24,843

Ernest Hemingway found Key West so alluring he made his home here, and you can visit his home and museum in this town at the southernmost tip of the U.S. Among the town’s artistic treasures are the conch-style architecture of its buildings. Among other one-time residents are Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, James Merrill, Tennessee Williams, and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.

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12. Ithaca, NY (Tompkins County)
> Arts institutions: 3.9 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 3.9 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 30,569

From the Ithaca Ballet to the Community School of Music & Arts, Ithaca offers something for everyone. The State Theatre of Ithaca sponsors concerts and shows by famous names. Located on the Cornell University campus, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art displays art, photography, and videos. In October, the town’s Open Studio weekends allow visitors to explore the work of local artists.

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11. Telluride, CO (San Miguel County)
> Arts institutions: 4.7 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 4.7 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 1,965

Though known mainly for its skiing, Telluride boasts an Art District that offers visitors a chance to savor art when they get off the slopes. Telluride Arts, a local arts council, awards grants and provides resources to local artists.

10. Great Barrington, MA (Berkshire County)
> Arts institutions: 14.2 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 14.2 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 2,070

Though probably not as well known as other Massachusetts art hubs like Provincetown and Nantucket, Great Barrington, nestled in the Berkshires, has an impressive lineup of artistic venues. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center offers live theater to opera. The Bernay Fine Art Gallery displays a collection of contemporary art from artists around the world.

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9. Lucas, KS (Russell County)
> Arts institutions: 5.1 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.1 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 370

Called the Grassroots Arts Capital of Kansas, Lucas is known for treasures that can best be described as quirky. From fried eyes painted on the sidewalk to creations concocted from ordinary materials, Lucas has a unique take on modern art – especially at its famed Garden of Eden, where out-of-the-ordinary sculptures reside.

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8. Ojai, CA (Ventura County)
> Arts institutions: 2.3 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 2.3 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 7,534

A haven for writers, photographers, artists, and musicians, Ojai is packed with artistic venues from the Ojai Art Center to the Ojai Valley Museum to the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts (honoring the late ceramic artist hailed as “the Mama of Dada”). The Ojai Playwrights Conference Summer New Works Festival gives new writers a stage for their plays. The Ojai Storytelling Festival and the Ojai Music Festival are other top attractions for artists and art-lovers alike.

7. Blue Hill, ME (Hancock County)
> Arts institutions: 5.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 901

Surrounded by Blue Hill Bay and Blue Hill Mountain, Blue Hill has long welcomed craftspeople and artists. Visitors can take in the beautiful New England scenery while picking up locally made items such as hand-made pottery and blankets, as well as sculptures and paintings by local artists.

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6. Mill Valley, CA (Marin County)
> Arts institutions: 6.7 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 6.7 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 14,330

This Northern California enclave hosts an eclectic array of art, thanks to the Mill Valley Arts Commission. The organization sponsors monthly art exhibits at City Hall and the Community Center as part of First Tuesday ArtWalk. Other sponsored events include Concerts in the Plaza and the Paint Off shows.

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5. Carrboro, NC (Orange County)
> Arts institutions: 3.4 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 3.4 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 21,230

The arts scene in Carrboro flourishes at the ArtsCenter, where live performances and art classes for youngsters and adults are held. Along the Chapel Hill-Carrboro border is a gaggle of art spaces known as Attic 506, which were funded by the Orange County Arts Commission and the artists themselves. On the second Friday of each month, visitors can glimpse the artists’ works during an informal art crawl.

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4. Northampton, MA (Hampshire County)
> Arts institutions: 5.8 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.8 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 28,516

Another Massachusetts artistic hotspot, Northampton’s Arts and Culture Department promotes community-based arts programs and oversees the city’s Paradise City Cultural District, a span of 14 square blocks. The council awards grants twice annually to artists and arts groups.

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3. Woodstock, NY (Ulster County)
> Arts institutions: 5.0 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 5.0 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 2,266

When you think of Woodstock you likely remember the famous concert held there in 1969. But its art scene began much earlier in 1919, when the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum was established. Today, the organization continues its legacy as a “Colony of the Arts” with exhibitions by American artists.

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2. Santa Fe, NM (Santa Fe County)
> Arts institutions: 11.9 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 11.9 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 83,922

Since its founding in 1609, Santa Fe has thrived economicaly due to its artistic heritage and support for the arts. In the 1920s and 1930s, small galleries began to dot the city’s landscape, and today the city honors one of the country’s most famous artists at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

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1. Marfa, TX (Presidio County)
> Arts institutions: 75.0 per 1,000 establishments
> Arts employment: 75.0 per 1,000 employees
> Total population: 1,831

Marfa got its start as an arts haven when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there in 1971 to find a place for large-form sculptures. Combining “cowboy chic” and contemporary art, Marfa now sports a collection of galleries and working artist studios. The town is known for its installation art, but also exhibits an array of textiles, paintings, and photography in a small southwestern town with only one traffic light. Ballroom Marfa serves as the center for its art scene, offering visual art, music, films, lectures, and workshops.

Methodology

To determine the best small arts towns in America, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data on arts establishments and employment from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 County Business Patterns dataset. Places were ranked based on the number of arts establishments – businesses classified in the North American Industry Classification System as Fine Arts Schools, Musical Groups and Artists, Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers, Museums, Theater Companies and Dinner Theaters, Dance Companies, and Other Performing Arts Companies – per 1,000 establishments in the county or county equivalent in which they are primarily situated. Cities, towns, villages, and Census-designated places were matched to counties using 2019 boundary definitions from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only cities, towns, villages, and Census-designated places with fewer than 100,000 residents that are situated entirely within their county or county equivalent were included for consideration. Data on arts establishments and employment are at the county level and come from the Census Bureau CBP. Data on population are at the place-level and are five-year estimates from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. Editorial discretion was used to exclude any cities without significant arts communities.

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