Definitely a "who knew?" story, this small river town should be on your radar as a place to celebrate the arts

By Lisa Davis

You've likely never heard of Paducah, Ky.

This small locale, halfway between St. Louis and Nashville at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, has no more than 26,000 residents. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in cultural density: The tiny city has more arts and crafts than a metropolis 10 times its size.

This unpretentious Bluegrass State community has mighty roots in the art world, so mighty that UNESCO designated Paducah the world's seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art. It joins a prestigious list that includes Santa Fe (the only other American city); Aswan, Egypt, Icheon, South Korea; and Hangzhou, China.

Paducah's other claim to fame is as the home city of the world's largest and most prestigious museum devoted to quilts and fiber arts. The National Quilt Museum attracts visitors from all 50 U.S. states and more than 40 foreign countries yearly. The river town turns into Quilt City USA every April, when 30,000 artists and art enthusiasts descend upon it for the American Quilter's Society's QuiltWeek.

Chicago can't claim that. Neither can New York City.

So, what makes Paducah so arts-friendly? Meredith and Bill Schroeder, who began the American Quilter's Society in 1984, are credited with growing the town's fascination with fiber arts. In the society's first year, 1,500 quilters became charter members, and in April 1985, the group held its first quilt show and contest in town, attracting 5,000 people.

The Schroeders, who were, not surprisingly, quilting aficionados, opened the National Quilt Museum in 1991. They chose to base it in historic downtown Paducah as a way to give back to their hometown community. The $2.2 million facility is the largest int he world dedicated to quilting and sits two blocks from the Ohio River.

"The personal passion and creativity of our local artists and leaders transformed Paducah into a welcoming town for innovators and creative people, including visitors who want to connect with their own creativity," says Laura Schaumburg, marketing director of the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau.

So where are the best spots to get creative?

The LowerTown Arts District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its Queen Anne cottages and Victorian architecture, houses studios owned by a talented mix of painters, potters, ceramicists and jewelry makers. Visitors can stop in here during the town's Second Saturday Studio/Gallery Walk when LowerTown galleries host extended hours and feature new exhibits and entertainment. The district's galleries also holds hands-on art workshops with visiting artists, part of the town's Artist-in-Residence Program.

The Yeiser Art Center holds the annual Fantastic Fibers exhibition each April through June, showcasing some of the best works created from natural and synthetic fibers. The Clemens Fine Art Center is another must-see that offers gallery exhibits and performing arts events. The Carson Center holds artistic workshops, events and music performances.

Artistic expression never stops in Paducah. All year long the city hosts art-related events, including the LowerTown Arts & Music Festival each May; the Master Artists Workshops for ceramics, jewelry and metalworking in the summer; and the River's Edge International Film Festival in November.

And remember: All of this is offered in a rural town with less than 26,000 residents. Who knew, right?