Plastered in Paducah
I first learned about Paducah, KY eleven years ago when I started working at Americans for the Arts. Where is Paducah, you ask? Well, it’s a town of about 25,000 people nestled where the Ohio and Tennessee rivers converge, approximately 140 miles north of Nashville in the western sliver of Kentucky. But don't let this quaint town fool you, as it packs a huge arts punch.
Starting in 2000, Paducah was put on the map for its Artist Relocation Program. The city partnered with banks and other businesses to offer low interest loans to any artist who moved to "LowerTown" to live and work. Artists came from across the United States to take up residence. As part of the agreement, artists had to improve their home (LowerTown was plagued with boarded up and dilapidated homes) and live there for at least five years. Instead of what normally happens - artists move in, improve the area, rents go up, and then artists are forced out when rent goes up - LowerTown artists own their homes, and are able to stay. LowerTown, Paducah's oldest residential neighborhood, continues to evolve today with the addition of the campus of Paducah School of Art & Design.
A few years later, Paducah really took the development of arts, culture and humanities to the next level by applying to be a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative City. The Convention & Visitors Bureau presented the application to join the Creative Cities Network in Seoul during 2011 and the City was admitted two years later, becoming one of only 41 in the world at the time.Yes, in the world! There are also only 3 UNESCO cities in the United States: Paducah, Iowa City, IA, and Santa Fe, NM.
Now, this sleepy river town attracts thousands of tourists a year, boasts a world class performing arts center seating 1,800 (which they fill), the largest quilting museum in the world (and don't think quilting is not an art form! I walked out of the museum thinking how talented those quilting artists are!)--along with museums, galleries, and private artist’s galleries. Paducah also possesses 50 murals that decorate three blocks of their flood wall - a brilliant way to take a necessary eye sour and transform it into an engaging public art tourist attraction.
How did this all happen? Through constant work, communication and cooperation between the artist community, city government, and the business community. My primary reason to visit Paducah was to speak to their Chamber of Commerce. I envisioned 25-50 people showing up at my 8 am breakfast talk. Imagine my surprise when I was told that there would be between 300 and 350 business leaders in attendance. This is a town that understands the value of the Arts!!!! While speaking at the Chamber to businessmen and women I extolled the importance of the arts and culture to Paducah's economy and called upon business leaders to fully embrace and support the arts. But, I had another message, this one for the artists and arts organizations: be part of the business community - take your place at the table. Join the Chamber of Commerce, show up and be part of the process.
So, how did I get plastered? I was invited to Pinecone Studio & Gallery and have a plaster mold taken of my face by artist Char Downs, who is celebrating 10 years there since she relocated to Paducah from Hawaii/San Francisco. My face will join a group of other faces in an art exhibit that will debut in Paducah before going on tour.
If you're looking for a place to visit, explore Paducah. If you are a local arts agency or an artist, look to them as a model of how a relatively small town can do some really cool things with the arts that end up driving their economy.