Our little town has recently become embroiled in a discussion about the importance of the arts and what impact they have on our community. Specifically, does the designation of a UNESCO Creative City benefit its citizenry, or is it just an excuse for officials to junket to far-off lands, enjoying the perks of travel and cuisine offered at these host cities? There was lots of weigh-in from our local television station, a few visitors, and many others in the community involved in the arts. Among those comments, I was most surprised by one from the president of Paducah Economic Development, who stated that there are not a lot of “art companies” targeted to relocate here and he considered that the arts make up a minuscule part of our economy.
Paducah received the coveted designation as one of three UNESCO Creative Cities in the U.S. back in 2013 for the City’s important role in the connectivity of cultures through creativity. We were the 7th city to receive the UNESCO designation of City of Crafts & Folk Art, a prestigious honor for any city but especially for one with a population of 25,000 like Paducah. But what does it mean? And maybe more importantly, what does it get us, especially those who live here who aren’t part of the arts community. Why should they care?
Paducah has the same struggles of many small towns in rural areas – attracting businesses, unemployment, aging infrastructure, retention of youth. It sits in an area of high poverty and unemployment with fewer economic resources and opportunities than more populous urban areas, such as Nashville, Tennessee or Louisville, Kentucky, a mere 2 or 3 hour distance, respectively, from Paducah. Its officials work to ensure quality schools and healthcare, opportunities of higher learning through a local community college, a growing business presence, and a vibrant city to attract businesses for growth and opportunity.
One of the things Paducah decided on many years ago was to bet on the arts. They looked to the arts as a way to make their community stand out, as a way to enrich the lives of its people. From that support came a local symphony orchestra, a regional performance center that attracts national musicians, performances, and traveling Broadway musicals, an expanding theater group active in the community and schools, an independent cinema with an annual international film festival, and a national quilt museum with two week-long festivals annually attracting participants from around the world. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of other arts related organizations with a prominent presence that impact the community artistically and add value to this area. I think that conscious decision is what makes this city I adopted more than 10 years ago stand out from others of its size. It’s devotion to the arts was one of the major attractions for me and David when we came here in 2006 to check out the Artist Relocation Program, designed as an economic jumpstart for a blighted historic neighborhood on the fringes of the downtown. Had Paducah not had that emphasis on the arts we wouldn’t have given it much thought as a potential place to transition to as a base for our art careers.
As the arts grew in our community, especially with the Artist Relocation Program, Paducah’s presence as a creative place attracted national attention. It was featured in a number of national journals and publications, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Condé Nast Travel. People traveled here to see its Lower Town Historic Art District, home of the Artist Relocation Program, the National Quilt Museum, its historic downtown, the newly opened Paducah School of Art and Design. Artists, such as David and I, contributed to the community, starting arts-driven organizations that produced annual award-winning festivals and artist-in-residence programs that garnered both national and international applicants. With each new activity, each new program, we attracted people to Paducah who became enthusiasts and champions of our community, marveling at the richness of our little river town, this gem on the Ohio River.
So it was not by accident or fancy writing that UNESCO awarded Paducah its designation. The Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, CVB, knew well the role of the arts in the community and its economic impact on the city. The CVB recognized how the arts elevated us as a creative place worthy of recognition, that attracts others, and that had value for other like-minded communities of culture and art. That vision sparked the opportunity to invest in a wider community that would likewise enrich our citizenry.
Art is all around us. It is in our building design, our home furnishings, the plates we eat off of and the utensils we use. It shows up on our phones, our cars, our clothes. Our cityscape and parks spring forth from its vision, and our monuments stand in recognition of its presence in our lives. Art is more than some extracurricular fluff to fill up our time; it plays an intrinsic role in our lives. After all, we could just as well sit on a plain wooden box if utility was all that was required in a chair, or wrap ourselves in cloth if we only needed warmth and modesty. Art and design speak to something quite basic to who we are as humans. The impulse to embellish, to record our existence, to create is proof through the millennia of human life as evidenced through archeological artifacts.
Because community is more than economics. Community is derived from quality of life, and the arts have everything to do with that. People and companies tend to gravitate toward communities with not only good schools and jobs but also those places with rich culture, a deep involvement in the arts, and activities that enrich their lives. The arts help us to define ourselves, enrich us beyond our means, and bring joy to our lives. Paducah’s place in UNESCO’s Creative Cities, I would argue, benefits everyone by sharing with the world what makes us unique, attracting interest to our creativity, and using that creativity as a strength in building our community. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I believe UNESCO is a tide that has the potential to make our ship sail.