Artists Reinvigorating a Historic Downtown

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Artists Reinvigorating a Historic Downtown

I was recently passing through a town in western Kentucky called Paducah. I hadn’t heard much about prior. But I learned that the town has employed a successful program attracting artists from cities like New York and San Francisco around the world to Paducah with great financial incentives.  It’s a novel program that seems to be a win-win for both sides. Artists obtain an inexpensive place to pursue their art, and the fledging downtown is reinvigorated with an influx of artists. It has the power to change the face of a city.

The program is called the Artist Relocation Program (ARP) and has been replicated in other cities.  Essentially, it attracts artists by offering very competitive finance and loan incentives to purchase property. So, artists have newfound possibilities of owning their home, work, and gallery spaces. This contrasts with most urban areas where artists reside where gentrification and rising rental costs often push artists out, and prevent them from maintaining workspaces.

The program has been deemed a success since its inception in late 2000. Over 40 artists have relocated to the Lower Town area investing $12-$15 million in the local economy. Amazingly, it was conceived and pushed forward by a citizen Mark Barone, who was alarmed to see the rapid decline of the once prosperous and historic Lower Town area.

In my travels, I stayed in a bed & breakfast in this area.  My landlords were artists who moved from San Francisco.  I noticed they lived and had their studio in this space. They said they were tired of their long commute on the west coast and wanted a change in pace.

After meeting my hosts, it was time to explore the nearby downtown.  Like many towns, the downtown was remarkably empty but I noticed several art galleries and events. For a small city of about 25,000, there were some innovative sites.  Splashing color near the banks of the river on the flood walls downtown was a series of murals.  Each one depicted a different era or theme of the city.

Located next to the murals is the National Quilt Museum. I never knew one existed. I always had a fondness for quilts so I decided to visit. I was expecting to see a tour guide who was an elderly Church-going lady. Instead, I was greeted by a young woman with slightly blue hair who performs Burlesque dancing lessons.  I observed the quilts hanging on the walls, many which were truly works of art. Some were themes, others abstract. I learned that Paducah is the site of the American Quilt Society’s annual contest. About 30,000 quilters attend.  It has awarded more than $3 million in prize money since its inception in 1984.

The Artist Relocation program combined with the National Quilt Museum earned Paducah’s logo as the “City of Crafts & Folk Art.”  I realized that a fledgling city could revamp, rebrand and reinvigorate from the vision of a citizen or the introduction of a novel museum.