How art can grow from Midwestern roots. 

By Dana Colecchia Getz

Columbus, Ohio is not typically famous for its art scene. In fact, outside of the Midwest, many people’s perception is that in order to become a “real” artist, Columbus is the kind of place that you leave to begin that story. It is the preface, not the conclusion.

So, when I recently visited Columbus and my host drove me to an abandoned strip mall in the East Side of the city with promises of mind-blowing art installations, I was skeptical. As we got out of the car I found only two signs of life in the sprawling emptiness— teenagers unabashedly making out in the car next to us, and Otherworld. This former big box store turned interactive art space’s large, modern sign dominated the scene with optimistic beckoning: Leave your preconceptions at the door.

Having lived my life in Pennsylvania and Ohio, I’d often received the message that while this area of the country is a nice place to grow up, true artistic growth needs challenge. The stereotype holds that as steel is honed against stone, artistic gifts can only develop within the frenetic energy of creative hubs such as New York or LA. Besides, that is where the resources are.

Creatives often listened to that message, but something shifted. Just as Covid left many of us wondering if our lives really were better in larger cities, artists wondered if this narrative of leaving home and moving to the coasts in order to be successful is still true (or if it ever even was).

Entering Otherworld, I found myself among children and adults crawling through secret passageways to discover glowing, towering structures and neon-textured corners. This once abandoned 32,000-square-foot space was transformed by over forty artists in 2019 into a massive, interactive, immersive art experience. As I turned down yet another unexpected hallway, I found myself entranced. Otherworld—a surreal, whimsical sensory indulgence—was a testament to this new truth. “Real” artists are building their own creative success wherever they want. In fact, I met several Columbus artists whose stories taught me a surprising lesson: not only is it possible to be a “real” and successful artist in the Midwest; there are advantages to doing so.

Although some artists in the past have been able to navigate careers outside of traditional art hubs, technological advances have broken boundaries and expanded possibilities. Regardless of medium, the artists I met in Columbus agreed that much of their ability to grow successful and sustainable creative careers in Columbus resulted, in part, from these innovations. By combining these technological opportunities, a supportive artistic community, and a uniquely Midwestern sensibility, Columbus gives artists a bit of breathing room that they might not have received elsewhere—resulting in a refreshingly new type of creative hub.

I witnessed this firsthand in the neighborhood of Franklinton. Over the last two decades, this area transformed from a struggling flood zone to a hipster haven. As I walked the area, I felt a palpable energy—much of which emanated from my neighborhood guide. Johnny Riddle, Executive Director of Columbus’ Franklinton Arts District, could barely contain his excitement as he pointed out cutting edge galleries, commissioned public art lining the streets, innovative co-ops to house new artists, and collaborations with restaurants and other industries.

Riddle acknowledged that new technology has been key to their organization’s growth and the local artists’ opportunities. Without being on the coasts, artists can share their work with anyone around the world. People often stumble on these artists on social media and reach out. “Scrawl” (originally “Urban Scrawl”), one of Franklinton’s oldest showcases, began in 2007 by a small group of local artists. Now they receive applications from artists around the world looking to participate. He believes that technology has allowed them to reach an audience that was practically impossible before.

Sustainable fashion designer, Celeste Malvar-Stewart, agrees. She’s been able to carve out a successful niche in the surprisingly robust fashion industry of Columbus—home to the third largest concentration of fashion designers after New York and Los Angeles according to Columbus Monthly. Although she originally moved from New York City, she has chosen to stay. Through her online presence, she’s garnered attention from customers around the globe, many of whom are shocked to realize that she is based in Columbus. Malvar-Stewart sees that as a benefit. “People find me from all around the world and I believe they can find me easier because I’m here and I’m not in the midst of the noise of New York City and San Francisco and Tokyo and Paris…I think we would stand out no matter where you would put us in the world, you just don’t have to look through a lot to find us here,” Malvar-Stewart explained.

Technology has not only changed opportunities for artists, it’s created new forms of artistic expression. My first night in Columbus, I was chatting with colleagues before dinner when a man walked in wearing a leather outback hat and a bandana tied cowboy-style around his neck. Someone introduced him as “YouTube sensation” Coyote Peterson. Honestly, I hadn’t heard of him before.

But as it turns out, I’m definitely in the minority. His channel Brave Wilderness has over twenty million subscribers. He’s involved in several other endeavors including Coyote Peterson’s: Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, and was recently nominated for an Emmy. That’s not bad for a Midwestern kid who had to cobble a film studies major together at The Ohio State University in the early 2000’s before they offered such a program. He embarked on a career in filmmaking in Columbus before YouTube was even in existence, but a lack of resources at the time made that challenging. Now, he argues, new technology has expanded creative possibilities regardless of location.

Peterson explained that distribution and prohibitively expensive equipment had always been the challenge for filmmakers creating outside of the traditional film hubs like Hollywood. But now digital distribution has turned the film industry on its head, allowing creators to make their work from home. The technological advances in film production have also made traditional cameras and equipment less necessary. He argued that if someone’s “got the ambition and drive and talent to garner an audience, they can become successful and notable.”

Another reality is that by living and creating in the Midwest, there is less need to be a “starving artist.” While struggle can inspire creativity, so can material support and resources encourage artistic freedom. Riddle has seen this as a tremendous opportunity for creation in Ohio. He noted that the reasonable cost of living in Columbus allows artists to pursue their creative careers full time since the cost of materials and studio space are actually affordable. Peterson noted that he’s able to live a comfortable life raising his daughter in Columbus and is happy simply visiting New York and LA.  He grinned widely as he shared, “I don’t want the financial responsibility of a house in the Hollywood Hills. I’ll go stay in one for a couple of days and get the same fulfillment.”

As much as opportunities are changing for artists in the Midwest, they still face the challenge of less resources than the coastal hubs. Funding remains a significant issue. Organizations such as the Franklinton Arts District have developed impressive financial opportunities for artists, but that isn’t always easy. There are only so many local, large corporations to go after for investments. Many of the same organizations repeatedly compete for the same funding, limiting their opportunities.

Since the Midwestern art scene isn’t as established as centers like New York, the individual art investor culture also needs to be developed. Riddle explained that there is a misconception that buying original art is reserved only for those with means. His organization is looking to change that with an upcoming social media campaign to promote the idea that original artwork is accessible for everyone at different levels.

Peterson found it challenging to find film investors in a town not familiar with the industry. “People here don’t understand the entertainment industry,” he explained. “Getting somebody to invest in an entertainment project is much more difficult if you’re not in an area where entertainment is the norm.”

Regardless, this growing art community made it clear to me what has often been overlooked: creating art is not just about crafting a career, it’s also about crafting a life. Maybe the coastal arts scene often disregards the Midwest as an artistic center because it’s known more for kindness than edge. But can creative freedom instead be rooted in a sense of place and a state of groundedness?

Two Dollar Radio, a successful indie publisher, was started by husband-and-wife team Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf nearly twenty years ago. They continue to pride themselves on publishing books “too loud to ignore.” They opted to build their business and family in Columbus and maintain that their company’s mindset and approach are very Midwestern. Eric Obenauf explained, “There’s more focus on walking the walk here, and I think that active approach is what we prescribe to. No one cares what you talk about doing; the value is on what you actually do.”

The environment is also more collaborative than cutthroat. Johnny Riddle acknowledged, “Having a career in a creative field is always going to be competitive.” However, he argued that the Columbus creative community is “wildly supportive and collaborative, which is kind of a breath of fresh air when you’re always going up against somebody for the next exhibition or the next residency, or funding from nonprofit arts organizations.”

No one explained the importance of creating from a space of support and knowing better than celebrated author Hanif Abdurriqib. We met at Two Dollar Radio’s bookshop and vegan cafe, Two Dollar Radio Headquarters. Their company published his first book of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us in 2017. Abdurriqib has found incredible success as a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. His work earned him the 2021 MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant. He reflected on how his lifelong connection to Columbus informed his work.

“I don’t know how my writing would be different if I lived anywhere else, but I don’t want to find out. More than that, I don’t know how my life would be different. I lived in Connecticut for two years and I did not love it. My writing probably didn’t change, my first book was written primarily in that era. And so, the writing is maybe more inconsequential than the fact that it slowly chipped away at the person I was,” Abdurriqib said.

By choosing to stay and create in the Midwest, artists are redefining artistic success. Ebenauf explained that being removed from the “oftentimes insular and incestuous” publishing hubs has allowed Two Dollar Radio to “pursue work that inspires us without pandering to trends.” While they might have benefited from the notoriety that comes with a presence in New York, their location has allowed them the freedom to focus on quality over quantity.

Peterson acknowledged that despite new opportunities in film production, not everyone will become the next Steven Spielberg. And yet, he questioned if that should be the goal for creatives. “How important is that to anybody at the end of the day?” Peterson wondered. “Do people just want to be able to craft their own navigable routes through entertainment and be recognized for what their talent is?”

Ultimately, these artists are creating and living in a place they love. Shouldn’t that really be the goal? As Abdurriqib sat across from me, the light-filled bookshop humming around us, he seemed to give voice to this new world order.

“For me,” he explained, “leaving was never the goal. Instead, the goal was ‘how can I make this place I love work for me?’”

Dana Colecchia Getz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer specializing in travel, parenting, and social change. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, World Nomads, and more of her writing, visit her website