Paducah: A UNESCO Creative City

Paducah: A UNESCO Creative City

We think the world of Paducah! Now the world will think of us!

We think the world of Paducah. Now the world will think of us!


When a group of civic leaders gathered in 1987 to visualize what downtown could be in 20 years, their plans were grand, but today, the reality of Paducah’s renaissance has surpassed expectations. The list of national awards and accolades over the past five years alone is impressive. The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Paducah the Great American Main Street award in 2010 and chose it as one of the 2011 Dozen Distinctive Destinations. The list continued to grow as the Chamber of Commerce received the 2011 Chamber of the Year award and West Kentucky Community and Technical College was named one of the Top Five Community Colleges in America by Aspen Institute. It seemed Paducah was on a roll, but the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) had their eyes on another prize as 2011 came to a close—the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network.


Since the beginning of this millennium Paducah has built upon the cultural resources of the community. In fact, Paducah garnered the Cultural District Certification by the Kentucky Arts Council in February 2012. “Though Paducah boasts many state and national awards, the Creative Cities Network designation is one of international significance and rests on the merit of assets, events and activities that have been transpiring here for years,” said Mary Hammond, Executive Director of the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The application process was a golden opportunity to research and document the amazing influence Paducah’s quilting and diverse arts community has made on a global platform.” After an extended application process coupled with an organization restructuring period, on November 21, 2013, the dream was realized and the announcement made that UNESCO had designated Paducah, Kentucky, the world’s seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art, making it a member of the Creative Cities Network.


Initial Encounter with UNESCO & the Creative Cities Network

The Paducah CVB first learned about the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2008, four years after the program’s launch, at an International Conference on Creative Tourism in Santa Fe, NM. The event was organized by the City of Santa Fe (UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art) in collaboration with the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The goal of the conference was to teach participants how to develop creative tourism as an economic asset in their home communities.


In September 2008, Rosemarie Steele, former Marketing Director at the CVB, attended the conference with Robin Malpass, the CVB’s marketing consultant, along with Jessica Perkins and Monica Bilak, former staff members of Paducah Renaissance Alliance. The international gathering was labeled a “global conversation” and brought together founders of the emerging creative tourism movement with leaders of creative industries. “The Paducah team spent their mornings in conversational sessions with industry leaders, while afternoons were reserved for engaging in hands-on activities that characterized Santa Fe's culture and exemplified exactly how creative tourism is implemented on a local level,” said Steele.


It was clear that creative tourism, an offshoot of cultural tourism, was gaining momentum and had the potential to bring a desirable economic benefit to the destination as well as many of its individual artists. Following the conference, the CVB team conducted a survey of hands-on creative workshops already being offered in Paducah. “The results were illuminating,” said Steele. “Through classes offered by the American Quilter’s Society, multi-day workshops at the National Quilt Museum by internationally acclaimed instructors, and a myriad of hands-on experiences available throughout the Historic Downtown and Lower Town Arts District, more than 4,000 people come to Paducah each year from all areas of the world to learn, share, or experience a creative activity or event.”


In addition to having the creative tourism product in place, Paducah’s international audience was already established. Recent figures show that the National Quilt Museum draws visitors from all 50 states and more than 50 countries. The American Quilter’s Society (AQS) has been promoting the accomplishments of contemporary quilters on a national and international scale since its inception in 1984. Bonnie Browning, AQS Executive Show Director, has judged quilt contests and taught workshops in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Switzerland, and Turkey. Yeiser Art Center, which has been presenting the juried Fantastic Fibers exhibit for the past 27 years, boasts a surprising number of entries by international artists for their contest exhibits. A group of Lower Town artists, known as the Paducah Arts Alliance, have hosted a number of artists from across the globe through the city-funded Paducah Artist-in-Residence program. In fact, a team of Paducah artists traveled to Innsbruck, Austria in May to exhibit and teach as a result of this cultural exchange. All these factors made it quite evident that, in spite of its size, Paducah was an impressive candidate for the Creative Cities Network.


Pursuing the Designation

After a period of research on the benefits of membership in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and the evaluation criteria for inclusion in the organization, the CVB board approved pursuing the designation in 2009. In September, the Paducah City Commission passed a resolution affirming its position in support of this application and endorsing the work to which the Network’s members are dedicated. In October, the original application was sent to the office of the Director-General of UNESCO in Paris, France, complete with the City Resolution, and letters of endorsements from the Kentucky Cabinet of Arts, Heritage & Tourism, US National Commission for UNESCO – US State Department and the two existing America member cities–Iowa City, IO and Santa Fe, NM. The application portfolio, supporting documents, and the handcrafted clamshell box that housed them were all beautifully bound, wrapped and lined with marbled fabric and paper created by LowerTown artists Ike and Charlotte Erwin.


“Creating the original application was just the beginning,” said Hammond. Finalizing the application proved to be a step-by-step process, which involved ongoing communication with a UNESCO Culture Sector program specialist and project coordinator in Paris and a U.S. Department of State representative from the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. An extended series of revisions ensued as the CVB sought to enhance the application’s required criteria to match UNESCO’s high standards. The criteria for the Crafts and Folk Art, the obvious theme of choice for Paducah, required that the destination prove a long-lasting tradition in a particular form of crafts or folk art, contemporary production of the craft, a strong presence of local artists living and working in Paducah, established training centers or educational facilities relating to the arts, a host of annual art festivals and exhibitions, and a relevant infrastructure in the form of museums and art/craft supply stores.


“Though the research and documentation for the CCN application was labor intensive, the accumulation of information was like uncovering a gift–layer by layer,” noted Steele. “The long lasting tradition in folk art arrived with the early settlers, who brought with them much of their cultural heritage–including the art of quilting.” Linking that history and craft to Paducah and the present are the words engraved above the entrance to the National Quilt Museum of the United States–Honoring Today’s Quilter. The Museum exhibits embody the broad spectrum of quiltmaking by showcasing time-honored traditional designs and methods while simultaneously acknowledging and encouraging the art quilt movement that began in the mid-1970s. The list of exhibits by quiltmakers from other countries over the years, including Canada, Australia, Europe, and Asia, gives a sense of the depth and breadth of the Museum’s commitment to Crafts and Folk Art and particularly the international scope of that commitment. Their School Block Challenge program has reached across continents, even to the Western Cape of South Africa, to introduce quilting to the youth of the world.


Though the fabric and craft-related industries based in Paducah provide a favorable impact on the local economy year round, Paducah has built an entire economic sector around artists, craft persons, performing artists, writers, and the culture they create. “Paducah is a regional hub for health, education, and business. But Paducah also is a creative community with a variety of artists ranging from internationally-known painters to students who are just learning a craft,” said Mayor Gayle Kaler. “Without a doubt, the arts mean business in Paducah.” The Artist Relocation Program has become a national model for using the arts for economic development. The Paducah School of Art is the first community college in Kentucky to offer an Associate of Fine Art degree.


A recent study by the Americans for the Arts showed that the nonprofit arts and culture are a $39.9 million industry in Greater Paducah and supports 819 full-time equivalent jobs. It generates $3.6 million in local and state government revenue and leverages a remarkable $27.8 million in additional spending by arts and culture audiences–spending that pumps vital revenue into local restaurants, hotels, retail stores and other businesses in the region.


From Paducah, Kentucky to Seoul, South Korea

Though time lagged on with the application revisions, a new glimmer of hope sprung when Mayor Bill Paxton and representatives from the CVB were invited to attend the UNESCO Creative Cities Network conference in Seoul, South Korea, in November 2011, to provide a formal presentation of Paducah’s request. The theme of the conference was Sustainable Urban Development Based on Creativity. Mayor Pro Tem Gayle Kaler represented Mayor Bill Paxton and participated in a Mayor’s Roundtable discussion for sharing best practices, experiences, and insights in creative city development. Mary Hammond and Rosemarie Steele represented Paducah’s tourism industry and met with UNESCO staff and delegates from Santa Fe and Iowa City. Presentations on each destination was a requirement of both member and candidate cities in attendance. Language interpretation devices were provided for all attendees, which included UNESCO staff, city officials, tourism directors, industry leaders and several Korean students who were interested in experiencing an international networking process.


“Though Paducah is not as large in area or population as most of the member and candidate cities, the presentation proved that Paducah’s cultural assets and international networking projects are comparable to and, in some instances, more notable than other member and candidate cities,” said Hammond. The presentation demonstrated how Paducah was currently engaging in dialogue and sharing creative concepts with many cities within and beyond the network–predominately through programs provided by the National Quilt Museum, American Quilter’s Society, Paducah School of Art, and the Paducah Artist in Residence Program.


Team Paducah was extremely optimistic during the conference; however, shortly after returning home, the CVB received notice from Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General, that the candidate evaluation procedure was temporarily suspended until a new structure for the program could be agreed upon. A two-year hiatus occurred, until recently the CVB team noticed that the application process was not only active, but was revised as an online format. Hammond and Steele continued to move forward, but good fortune intervened. In November 2013, notification was sent to Mayor Kaler that Paducah had been designated an official member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Crafts and Folk Art.


A Creative City…for Today and for Paducah’s Tomorrows

Though creative tourism was the catalyst for pursing the Creative Cities Network, the benefits are far reaching. Creative industries are gaining momentum as an economic development driver in today’s growing global economy. The designation establishes Paducah as a leader in creative economic development and speaks to the quality of life residents enjoy. It provides a competitive advantage to businesses and institutions that are working to attract quality business professionals and educators…enticing them to relocate here.


As a CCN member, Paducah can reach out to individuals in other thematic networks, including Literature, Film, Gastronomy, Media Arts, and Music and Design to exchange ideas and experiences and create opportunities to offer our community a diverse array of resources–resources that will expand the capacity to train our youth and students in creative, cultural, and international business skills and prepare them for the future.


The designation provides the CVB with expanded opportunities to attract tourists by showcasing Paducah’s cultural assets and attractions on a global platform. “The dollars spent by visitors strengthen McCracken County’s economy by creating jobs, supporting local businesses–from gas stations to retail stores–and generating tax revenues to support our community,” said Hammond.


It Takes a Village

"Paducah is poised for cultural and economic sustainability by creating partnerships locally and with other cities," said Mayor Kaler. Paducah’s role as a hub of regional creative economic activity and tourism has been enhanced by the fundamental belief on the part of community leaders in the role of the creative industries in the city’s present and future. Because of forward-thinking community leaders, the AQS, Paducah’s various arts organizations, community festival organizers, museum and attraction directors and staff persons, educators, quilters, culinary artists, painters, potters, print and jewelry makers, who devote their time and talents to making Paducah a vibrant community—Paducah is now an internationally recognized member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. What this community does on a daily basis inspires and connects Paducah with people and places across the globe.


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