The Hotbeds of America's Arts and Culture, Ranked

Jul, 12 2018 / In /

SMU’s National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) today released its fourth annual Arts Vibrancy Index, which ranks more than 900 communities across the country, examining the level of supply, demand, and government support for the arts in each city. This year, more than 20% of the communities on the most-vibrant list appear for the first time – a total of nine new communities, including four new states: Florida, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.

“Arts vibrancy is dynamic, not static,” said Dr. Zannie Voss, director of NCAR. “New communities made the list, and there is some reshuffling among communities that made the list in previous years.”

Key movements and new communities featured on the lists include:

  • Traverse City, MI and Edwards, CO, which were ranked in 2016 but not in 2017, both reclaimed spots on the lists, in the top 10 medium and small communities, respectively;
  • Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA and Cleveland-Elyria, OH, are new to the index and are featured in the top-20, large metropolitan area list;
  • Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA; Durham-Chapel Hill, NC; and Rapid City, SD, also new to the index, are featured in the top 10 medium cities list;
  • Hood River, OR; Durango, CO; Key West, FL; and Fredericksburg, TX, are making their debut in the top 10 small cities list.

Community rankings are organized into three distinct lists based on size: large (population over 1 million), medium (population between 100,000 and 1 million), and small (population under 100,000 with an urban core of 10,000-50,000).  The report complements each listed community’s scores with its story of what makes it unique and dynamic.

In addition to the Arts Vibrancy Index, NCAR provides scores for every U.S. county on its interactive map, based on measures of arts dollars, arts providers, government support, and socio-economic and other leisure characteristics.

 “Arts and cultural organizations are well distributed across the country, serving communities both poor and affluent, rural and urban, not just on the coasts and not just in major metropolitan markets,” said Dr. Voss. “Between threats to eliminate federal arts funding, pushback from developers on percent-for-art requirements, and tax law changes that are expected to affect charitable giving, today’s climate of uncertainty makes it more important than ever to acknowledge and celebrate the essential role that arts and culture play in making communities throughout the country more vibrant places to live and visit. Creativity is a desirable and necessary element for an innovative and thriving community. Aside from being an engine of job creation and economic growth, arts and culture contribute to social well-being and are essential to creating more livable, safe, memorable and connected communities.”

 “The new Vibrancy Report once again demonstrates the dynamic power of the arts sector in America and how it ‘lives’ and thrives all over our vast nation,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, NCAR’s Nasher Haemisegger Fellow. “The field continues to be under immense pressure for resources, but as the Vibrancy Report indicates, despite the challenges, arts programs and organizations are important tools in community revitalization.”

The overall index is composed of three dimensions examined on a per capita basis: supply, demand, and government support. Supply is assessed by the total number of arts providers in the community, including the number of arts and culture organizations and employees, independent artists, and entertainment firms. Demand is gauged by the total nonprofit arts dollars in the community, including program revenue, contributed revenue, total expenses, and total compensation. Lastly, the level of government support is based on state and federal arts dollars and grants.

Beyond the specific rankings, select findings in the Arts Vibrancy Index include:

  • Every region of the country is represented in the index: Arts vibrancy is not exclusive to large, coastal metropolitan areas – cities large and small from every region appear in the index. While large and medium metropolitan areas are represented in all regions of the country, the list of small communities is dominated by those located in western states – Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
  • Rankings of communities that have previously made the list are in constant flux: Many factors contribute to these shifts, including transformations in a city’s cultural scene (for example, through the opening of a large arts center) or changes in population size. In addition, Dr. Voss said, “We have learned a lot over the past two years about the role of distance, how concentration vs. dispersion of arts organizations and people factors in, and the extent to which a city’s cultural activity can attract or involve its neighboring communities. This has led us to make some adjustments to our analyses.”
  • Arts vibrancy takes many shapes and forms. Some communities have large, impressive nonprofit cultural institutions (e.g. Los Angeles, Washington, and Minneapolis), some have an abundance of smaller organizations and venues (e.g. Asheville, NC; Juneau, AK; and Austin, TX), while others are particularly attractive to artists (e.g. Jackson, WY, and Los Angeles) or to tourists (e.g. Summit Park, UT, and New Orleans). Some cities are robust and strong in a variety of arts sectors (e.g. New York and San Francisco), while others excel in one particular art form (Nashville). Some communities also received high levels of government support, including Rochester, NY, Pittsfield, MA, and Santa Fe.
  • Vibrancy in very large cities takes two distinct forms: Some cities feature a strong concentration of arts vibrancy in the urban core with less going on in the surrounding areas (e.g. Chicago and Philadelphia), while others feature vibrancy distributed evenly throughout the larger metropolitan area (e.g. Boston and Cambridge).

Download the Full Arts Vibrancy Index [PDF]

The Lists

The full lists, with detailed information on each community, are available on the NCAR website, including scores on each of the three metrics of vibrancy, i.e. level of arts providers (supply), arts dollars (demand), and government support for the arts.

Large Cities

Among cities with populations of 1 million or more, the five most vibrant arts communities are as follows:

  1. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA
  2. New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ
  3. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
  4. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN
  5. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

These were the top five large cities in 2017 as well; this year, San Francisco and Washington traded places, while the other three maintained their rankings. Two other cities joined the list for the first time:

Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA, came in at #15, and Cleveland-Elyria, OH, ranked #19.

Medium Cities

Three communities with populations of 100,000 to 1 million are new to the Top 10 medium city list: Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA; Durham-Chapel Hill, NC; and Rapid City, SD. They are ranked #6, #7 and #8, respectively. In addition, Traverse City, MI, which was included in 2016 but not 2017, returned to the list this year at #4. The top five list is as follows:

  1. Santa Fe, NM
  2. Pittsfield, MA
  3. San Rafael, CA
  4. Traverse City, MI
  5. Asheville, NC

Small Cities

For small communities, defined as areas with an urban core of 10,000-50,000 people, four cities are making their debut on the list: Hood River, OR; Durango, CO; Key West, FL; and Fredericksburg, TX. These new cities rank #4, #5, #6 and #10 in the Top 10 small communities list, respectively. The top five cities are:

  1. Edwards, CO
  2. Jackson, WY-ID
  3. Summit Park, UT
  4. Hood River, OR
  5. Durango, CO

About NCAR

In 2012, the Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School of Business at SMU launched the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR). The vision of NCAR is to act as a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community. The goals of the Center are to unlock insights on: 1) arts attendance and patronage; 2) understanding how managerial decisions, arts attendance, and patronage affect one another; and 3) fiscal trends and fiscal stability of the arts in the U.S., and to create an in-depth assessment of the industry that allows arts and cultural leaders to make more informed decisions and improve the health of their organizations. To work toward these goals, NCAR integrates data from DataArts and its Cultural Data Profile[1] and other national and government sources such as Theatre Communications Group, the League of American Orchestras, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Census Bureau, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. NCAR makes its findings available free of charge to arts leaders, funders, policymakers, researchers, and the general public.

NCAR develops reports based on this uniquely comprehensive set of data that models the arts and culture ecosystem. It assesses the industry from multiple perspectives, including sector/art form, geography, and size of the organization, and it determines what drives health from the organization’s conditions and its community’s characteristics. Recent publications include white papers on ways to improve working capital health, dispelling the myth that the arts are elitist, and diversity and equity in the arts, as well as reports on the health of the U.S. arts and cultural sector. NCAR also offers the KIPI Dashboard, a free online diagnostic tool that allows arts organizations to benchmark their individual performance in nine finance and operations categories against their peers.


[1] “DataArts is a nonprofit organization that empowers the arts and cultural sector with high-quality data and resources in order to strengthen its vitality, performance, and public impact. Any interpretation of the data is that of NCAR, not DataArts. For more information, visit”