Being an artist has never been easy. Finding inspiration and a support system to help make your name and carve out a place in the art scene can be as challenging as getting a first solo show.
Traditionally, artists have flocked to arts Meccas like New York, Austin, Texas, Seattle or Portland, Ore., to find the creative atmosphere they crave. But increasingly, young artists are choosing to forgo the big city for a chance to build something for themselves in smaller communities like Boise.
Whether it is current economic challenges or a desire to stay close to home that's behind the decision to stay put, Boise's city and business leaders are quick to encourage the creative class to settle down, recognizing that a vibrant artistic community can draw more than a pretty picture.
"When companies come here and ask about a community, they're not just asking, 'what are the electric rates and what are the tax rates,'" said Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce President Bill Connors. "It's the entire community. And communities with lively arts, with rich arts organizations, tend to win out over those that don't have that. ... We have a vibrant arts community as part of our pitch."
Boise has had an impressive arts scene for its size for decades. Well-established arts organizations like Boise Art Museum, Boise Philharmonic, Opera Idaho, Ballet Idaho, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Boise Contemporary Theater exist alongside budding organizations like Visual Arts Collective, Alley Repertory Theater, Black Hunger Gallery and Treefort Music Fest.
But developing that richness depends on keeping creative people living in the community, especially those at the beginning of their careers.
"Young people have the energy and enthusiasm and they've got a voice," said Terri Schorzman, director of the Boise City Department of Arts and History. "They still have a great vision of the world and the things that are available out there for them to do."
The department hosts workshops to help artists learn skills that will help create their career--like building a business, marketing themselves and even finding health insurance.
"It's important to keep these young folks because if they're willing to stay and be here, they're going to continue being contributing members of Boise and, as a result, make the economy even more vibrant and creative," said Schorzman
The Department of Arts and History also posts calls to artists, awards grants and tries to cater to the needs of the younger demographic.
"We really do want to look toward the grassroots and try to help get funding to those under 25 where possible," Schorzman said. "Or to find those opportunities where they can engage."
These and similar efforts seem to be producing incremental gains. Many of the young artists Boise Weekly interviewed waxed on about the overwhelming support and comfort they found in Boise's creative community and the population at large. For others, living in a place like Boise has made artistic pursuits more of a challenge.
"I'm hearing from a lot of folks who are in their late 20s and early 30s that they felt that they needed a more vibrant artistic culture to do the work they needed to do," said Schorzman. "But then I see, on the other side, folks that have come back or that are settling in and doing some really creative, interesting things and finding a neat way to do that and to really connect."
Richard Young, chair of the Boise State University Art Department, has observed trends among graduating students, particularly who's staying and who's heading out of town. While he couldn't say for sure whether more artists are choosing to stay, he has noticed a more welcoming arts scene burgeoning.
"A lot of the different arts organizations--whether they're visual arts organizations or whatever--are providing more opportunities for artists to stay here and continue their practice," he said.
Young said several of the recent graduates who opted to stay in Boise have started independent ventures, adding that much of the driving force behind this entrepreneurial spirit has been the slow economic recovery.
Many artists have found success as freelancers. Retroscope Media and Credenda Studios are flourishing businesses both begun by Boise State graduates.
Not expecting to find a design job in Boise, Beau Greener had planed to move to Seattle after graduating from Boise State in 2011. When he was offered a position at Carew Co. in Boise, he decided to stay and, along with a friend, started Credenda Studios, a screen-printing business specializing in concert posters.
Zach Voss, also a 2011 Boise State graduate, saw that staying in Boise might provide a unique opportunity and started Retroscope Media shortly before leaving school. The film production company celebrated its first year of operation this fall.
"I don't want to leave to compete with the masses that are also hoping to make it or break through," said Voss. "I feel like I can, with comfort, figure out exactly what I want to do here."
The security of living in a smaller community creates a confidence-building, big-fish-in-a-small-pond dynamic that allows artists to experiment more freely with their work. According to Schorzman, the opportunity to do this while living in a financially manageable area like Boise makes engaging in such pursuits even easier. Access to affordable space and cheaper materials is just the beginning.
"[The economy] has always impacted me as an artist," said Monique Betty, a dancer with Ballet Idaho. "There are a lot of dancers who have had the opportunity to train in these elite programs that cost a lot of money and I never had that. Finances always had something to do with it."
Financial concerns are not always as important as lifestyle for some artists who choose to stay in Idaho.
"I'm a Northwest girl," said Betty, a Pocatello native. "Even if I had the opportunity to go back East or something, I don't necessarily know that I would. The quality of life here is just great. And the people--I think that's the thing--it just makes me happy."
Financial considerations had little to no effect on Greener's decision to stay in Boise.
"[It was] the idea of being a part of something that has such good potential," Greener said. "I feel like Boise gets overlooked. When people stop and actually notice Boise, what's coming out of Boise and Idaho, they're pretty surprised. It seems like everything is growing. It's just taking off so quickly, it's starting to get more national recognition and people are starting to notice it more. We're not a bunch of desert hillbillies."
Connors feels that molding Boise's image so that it is seen as young, hip and artistic will an important draw for new residents.
"Some cities have done a great job branding themselves where young artists would want to be," Connors said. "Take Austin: Music City, USA. Young artists, young musicians hang in Austin because they've branded themselves that way."
Any such branding would have to be carefully thought out considering that many find Boise's lack of a specific artistic reputation to be among its most appealing attributes.
"We have a distinctive different kind of lifestyle and different kind of opportunities for [artists]," said Schorzman. "Boise is, for so many people, kind of a blank slate in the way that you can almost create what you want to create."
Boise's lack of artistic definition might just be what allows the visions of some artists to be realized in a more natural way, without an excess of influence from other artists, giving them room to grow.
"Every generation, every time period, has something different to offer. Depending on the artist or the artistic vision of what they need, how they're going to meet those needs of the community and themselves," said Schorzman.
Many of these young artists feel that Boise's creative culture is undergoing its own adolescence and is at a tipping point. The community could move in any direction and its members want to be here to help guide it.: "There are significant things happening and it's interesting being part of defining what that movement is," Voss said. "I am aware of a shift and the decisions I make, especially in terms of staying or leaving, play directly into that ... to continually engage in that development and play a part in it is what intrigues me so much."