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July 10, 2012
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Kentucky’s Fab Five

Kentucky cultural districts showcase how the arts impact a community

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Danville’s Pioneer Playhouse dinner theater is the state’s oldest outdoor theater, opening in 1950. Danville was named one of the five Kentucky cultural districts.

If you’re looking to add to your knowledge of Kentucky’s arts, history or culture, but aren’t sure where to begin, the commonwealth just made your decision a lot easier.  In February, Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Arts Council (KAC) named Berea, Covington, Danville, Horse Cave and Paducah as the state’s first five cities to be certified as Kentucky Cultural Districts. The action makes Kentucky the 12th state in the nation to develop a statewide program.

“Each one of these five communities has something distinct to offer culturally,” said Lori Meadows, executive director of the KAC. “Kentucky has a strong heritage in the arts, history and agriculture, and those are the kinds of stories we want people to hear about the state. This program gives us the opportunity to promote those and adds weight to their future grant applications outside the state.”

By definition, a cultural district is a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a community – whether small and rural or large and urban – with myriad cultural amenities. Some 100-plus U.S. cities have planned or started cultural districts, using arts and culture to spawn revitalization efforts. Funded by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts, the KAC developed the Kentucky Cultural District Certification Program to encourage communities to form partnerships that link culture with economic development.

According to Meadows, her organization chose three communities that were “doing good things in the arts” in a pilot program five years ago to develop best practices. Several years passed before a presentation about cultural districts in Texas inspired her to move ahead.

Selected from 26 applicants by an independent panel, the 2012 honorees are reaping benefits.

“This designation has helped us legitimize our art as an economic force,” said Sandra Wilson, executive director of the Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission. “Now when I speak to our fiscal court or industrial authority and say, ‘We’re one of five places in the state chosen,’ they listen. It’s already inspired the city to allocate dollars in their budget to support our projects.”

Horse Cave

With a population of only 2,500, Horse Cave is the smallest community, but the Kentucky Repertory Theatre, now in its 35th production year, has put this Preserve America Community (one of 43 so designated) on the national map. Built above historic Hidden River Cave, the town has been rehabbing its older buildings for retail stores and artists the past several years. Home to the American Cave Museum, Horse Cave has a weekly bluegrass music jam, an arts and sciences summer camp, a choral society, a cell phone town tour, streetscape tracing the cave’s path beneath, and an oral history archive. The southern Kentucky town also was chosen to host a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, through July.

Danville

For 23 years, the Great American Brass Band Festival has focused on Danville’s small town charm and artsy personality.

“When it comes to the arts, Danville has a broad scope,” said Jennifer Kirchner, executive director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our outdoor theater has been going strong for 63 years, and Yo Yo Ma headlines at the Norton Center for the Arts this year. We have community theaters, a community art center, an outdoor art festival and an arts-focused library.”

Recently, Livability.com named Danville one of its Top 10 Cities for Historic Preservation. Its historic component encompasses Constitution Square, where the state’s constitution was signed; the Ephraim McDowell Apothecary and Gardens; and numerous beautifully preserved buildings with a past.

Paducah

Paducah began an Artist Relocation Program in 2000 that, through offering renovated older homes to artists as living and business locations, has become a national model for using the arts for economic growth. That, on the heels of a complete downtown makeover, garnered the Purchase District city recognition in 2011 as the fan favorite among the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

“Fortunately, Paducah had community leaders with the foresight to preserve historic structures and repurpose them,” said Rosemarie Steele, marketing director for the Paducah Visitors Bureau. “Now we have these amazing, one of a kind restaurants and little urban boutiques housed within 19th century architecture.”

Visitors can peruse exquisite fiber arts at the National Quilt Museum; catch culture at the Carson Center, Market House Theatre and Yesier Art Center; watch artisans at work in LowerTown Arts District; and discover Paducah’s history while strolling along its downtown floodwall murals.

Covington

Another river city rife with artsy venues, Covington also boasts a redeveloped waterfront with floodwall murals. Its cultural attractions embrace its German heritage (MainStrasse Village), religious roots (the splendid Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption), architecture (Roebling Suspension Bridge), history (James A. Ramage Civil War Museum) and arts (Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center).

Like the other four Cultural District cities, Covington had city leaders that recognized the community’s arts and cultural assets as economic boosters early on.

“We were ready when the Cultural District program came along,” said Natalie Bowers, art director for the City of Covington. “Essentially, it gave our cultural entities a platform to all work together. All we had to do was fill in the paperwork.”

Having that designation speaks to the city’s quality of life, adding to its marketability for business and tourism, said Barbara Dozier, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Berea

An old hat at arts marketing, Berea, the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, was recently ranked 21st in the top 25 small arts destination cities in the U.S. – along with Taos, N.M., and Asheville, N.C.  – by readers of AmericanStyle Magazine.

“We’ve been doing this a very long time,” said Belle Jackson, executive director at Berea Tourism. “Boone Tavern and the Log House Craft Gallery are both over 100 years old. We were in the hospitality and art and craft business before it became an economic driver, but soon recognized that it could serve that purpose for Appalachia and for our city.”

As a participant in KAC’s pilot program, Berea learned the value of composing cultural surveys and asset inventories, taking an objective look at the community as a whole and creating a vision for it. The methods helped start the town’s arts and crafts curriculum, innovative LearnShops offerings and popular weekly bluegrass Jammin’ on the Porch gatherings led by Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts recipients Donna and Lewis Lamb.

In addition to artisan shops galore, Berea has one of the largest dance communities in the country, cutting-edge Berea College, an impressive literary community, sustainability know-how (the Whippoorwill Festival) and lovely mountain foothills scenery.

Currently, the KAC is developing tourism materials on all five communities. Each will have local brochures, and the state website will promote the cultural districts as a whole.

Find out more about the Cultural District Certification Program at artscouncil.ky.gov or contact Chris Cathers, program branch manager, at christopher.cathers@ky.gov.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at editorial@lanereport.com.

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