Podunk Arts

Do we have an 'Uppertown' possibility?

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program provides working artists with access to financing for the purpose of acquiring and renovating or building brand new spaces to exhibit, work and, most of all, live

Which, since most professional artists are self-employed and conventional financing is sometimes tricky to pull off, can be a powerful incentive.

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A little over a month ago, when I wrote a piece wishing that the local art community be a bit more bohemian, at least with regard to where it hangs its hat, I half expected to be denounced as a Philistine. But, somewhat disappointingly, said stoning in the public square failed to materialize. And, frankly, the only comment I personally got from the arts community was an attaboy while waiting for a table at the Tomato Head from a local artist whose work you've no doubt seen staring coquettishly from random bits of plywood all over downtown.

More encouraging, while less gratifying since I had exactly nothing to do with it, was a recent article in these very pages chronicling, among other art happenings, an idealistic UT art grad's plan to open a new avant-garde gallery on Central. Not just anywhere on Central, either. Rather than merely push the boundaries of art, the new gallery, just across from the bus station, will also push the boundaries of what real estate is considered "artsy" (a trend that, in the art world, was already old when Picasso and friends moved into Le Bateau-Lavoir).

That leaves me wondering how can we nourish the nascent downtown arts community and encourage it to spread, pioneering such previously off-limits bits of real estate as the environs of the bus station. An answer came recently, out of an interminable online debate over the fate of the Candy Factory, when an ardent adherent to idea that the Candy Factory should remain meeting and rehearsal space for assorted arts organizations posted a link to Artist Relocation Program from the city of Paducah, Ky.: http://www.paducaharts.com/about.php .

Now, while the link had little to do with art centers or space for community organizations, it was interesting. Billed as "a national model for using the arts for economic development," the program provides working artists with access to financing for the purpose of acquiring and renovating or building brand new spaces to exhibit, work and, most of all, live. Which, since most professional artists are self-employed and conventional financing is sometimes tricky to pull off, can be a powerful incentive.

By working with a local bank (who likely gets Community Reinvestment Act credits out of the deal), Paducah offers up to 100 percent financing of up to 300 percent of appraised value with 30-year fixed loans at around 7 percent. The city also covers or waives many development fees, offers free vacant lots for new construction and even waives sales taxes on construction materials. The city also aggressively markets the program on both a regional and national basis.

But perhaps the most incredible thing about Paducah's program is that it seems to work. To date, 45 artists from as far away as California, Hawaii and Germany have taken advantage of the incentives and set up shop, and housekeeping, in the historic Lowertown district adjacent to downtown Paducah. And while they work in a variety of media—ceramics, glass, painting, sculpture, printing, even bookbinding and often, thanks to the Internet, work for clients worldwide—art isn't all they've created. In five years, a modest total investment of $1.2 million in city funds has generated $11.5 million in private investment by artists who have purchased and renovated properties. Real bricks and mortar investment in lots of newly renovated housing, more than a dozen new galleries and a half-dozen other businesses grace the Lowertown District, a neighborhood of Victorian houses interspersed with small-scale commercial buildings of early 20th century vintage (there's a list of available properties on the website, with Victorian fixer-uppers typically in the $30K to $50K range).

Which got me to thinking: If the program could work in a relatively Podunk place like Paducah (population 26,307), why not Knoxville? I mean, we're a much bigger city, home to a large university and perhaps the nation's headquarters for design/decor television. Heck, having pulled the latter off, landing a few dozen artists ought to be easy by comparison. We've also recently rejuvenated downtown as a place for fairs and festivals and invested in art infrastructure at the Emporium on Gay Street. And it's that investment, along with the seemingly serendipitous choice of the north end of downtown for that new avant-garde gallery, that might just point the way to where a program like Paducah's could work. Because if you look north along Broadway and Central, to the less fashionable fringes of Old North Knoxville and Fourth and Gill—along Anderson, Baxter and Irwin—it looks a lot like Lowertown.

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