Art town, USA

Paducah, Ky., the 'SoHo of the South,' is part of an emergence of outlying creative meccas.

Dianne Squallace walks the riveted-steel floor of Mark Palmer's bright and spacious gallery, taking in the lush oil paintings.

Ms. Squallace left this small riverboat port in western Kentucky for Liverpool, N.Y., in 1974. And though she moved back here six months ago, she still can't believe what she sees.

"When I left 30 years ago," she says, "this town was nothing like this."

Only eight years ago, in fact, the town's cultural crown jewel was a new quilt museum - albeit the nation's largest one. Around it, neighborhoods had been in decline for decades. Certain street corners had effectively been ceded to drug dealers.

Since then an ambitious artist-relocation program has taken root, heaping on financial incentives - from tax breaks to land grants to favorable financing rates - to make itself a magnet for painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and others willing to leave urban centers for the land of bluegrass. And scores of them have come.

In fact, still-quiet Paducah (, parts of which remain very much in the jackhammer phase, represents the latest in a string of provincial pearls - others include Rising Sun, Ind.; Fergus Falls, Minn.; and Cumberland, Md. - banking on the arts for economic revival.

The eruption of these rural culture capitals also means more Americans can find original art to view or buy on a weekend or day trip. In recent years, surveys by the Travel Industry of America have called arts- and culture-based travel a strong and growing segment.

In Paducah's case, becoming a lure for such travelers was largely a byproduct of a move to stop wrecking balls from erasing historical structures that had come under the control of slumlords.

"[Initially] it wasn't so much about creating this big arts district as cleaning up a neighborhood," says Mark Barone, who spearheaded the drive as an artist and private citizen at the start of this decade and now serves as artist-relocation coordinator for the city's Department of Planning.

More than two dozen restorations, most of them old homes, have been completed across the six-by-four square blocks of Lower Town in an explosion of artist-run studios, shops, and independent cafes that make Paducah the "SoHo of the South" by its own estimation. Already there is a sparkling new $32 million, 1,800-seat performing-arts center down by the Ohio River, near a flood wall covered in murals.

Traffic is light on a late-fall weekday, but the place feels communal. At the Candle Station, a converted gas station with a rare original Texaco sign still standing out front, owner Julie Wagner interrupts a conversation to wave to passing drivers who honk their hellos. "Like an old-fashioned neighborhood," she says.

It's one with some modern neighbors. Mr. Palmer's gallery, a refurbished 1840s brick home, was a boarded-up derelict before Palmer's move here from Washington in 2002. Roll through this arts district and you can see galleries owned by artists from Boston, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Like most exercises in urban revitalization, arts-based projects can trigger worries about the downside of gentrification. Artists might ultimately be priced out of areas they help renew in what one laments as "real estate Darwinism." But the payoff for longtime residents can be great, observers say, if newcomers become part of the civic structure.

Successful art towns nearly always result from artist initiative and cooperative local governments, says John Villani, author of "The 100 Best Art Towns in America."

It works, Mr. Villani says, when artists commit to their adopted homes. "They can't just come into town and seal themselves off," he says. In Paducah, Mr. Barone is not the only artist who has integrated himself. Palmer, for example, opens his gallery to the town's garden club. "The local community has embraced us," he says.

"I've lived here for 39 years, and wouldn't leave for anything," says Karen Allen, who works at The Guild, a quilting supply shop that also sells local knitting.

Ms. Allen has heard about a possible buyer for one of two abandoned movie theaters on Broadway. She looks forward to more foot traffic being added to the stirrings that began with Paducah's Downtown After Dinner program - shops keep late hours for the theatergoing crowd - launched in the 1990s.

Artists, too, have increased their public presence. "Definitely the interactive part is going to be a growing part," says Tom Barnett, the town's planning director. He points to a program called Second Saturdays, with gallery walks and artist demonstrations.

There might not yet be a "Paducah School" in terms of a regional aesthetic, but clustering creatives can have that effect, says Dory Kanter, an art instructor in Oregon who founded Art World Tours a decade ago. She points to a precedent: the fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast of France. Matisse, Derain, Signac, and other were drawn in by an offer of free space in 1905, she says. Art tourism followed.

"It's amazing how far-sighted the town elders were," says Ms. Kanter, "and that [the town] is still very much reaping the benefits."

In Paducah, work remains. But the resident-driven renaissance has momentum.

"Artists can see what could be," says Mr. Barnett, "as opposed to what is."

Art outposts near you

Where can you find art in rural America today? All over. We asked Santa Fe writer John Villani, author of "The 100 Best Art Towns in America," to cite a half-dozen US towns that are not quite yet on the radar, but are gems for would-be visitors or art-lovers ready to relocate. His picks:

Bradenton, Fla.: Inexpensive living near Sarasota.

Prescott, Ariz.: Cool and creative, not far from Phoenix.

Silver City N.M.: Inexpensive and isolated in southwest New Mexico.

Arcata, Calif.: Lively arts scene in redwood country.
(707) 822-3619

Marquette, Mich.: Winter-lovers gather around one university's strong museum shows.

Hot Springs, Ark.: Multinational downtown revival headed by galleries.

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