The Art of Attraction

Monday, November 14, 2005
Cape Girardeau artist Craig Thomas on Wednesday cleaned out a small building on his property to be used as an art studio. (Don Frazier)

When it comes to enticing artists to come to town, Paducah simply has more too offer.

Cape Girardeau's downtown and Paducah's "Lowertown" are both places with plenty of scope for an artist's imagination.

Like Cape Girardeau, the Kentucky city is a river town, although Paducah rests next to the Ohio River instead of the Mississippi. Both cities' historic business districts offer a number of restaurants and a cultural hub. Both districts have galleries within walking distance from those same restaurants.

But when it comes to the arts and attracting artists, Paducah simply has more to offer.

Officially Cape Girardeau doesn't actively recruit artists like Paducah nor does it offer incentives. But some of that could change, according to Tim Arbiter, executive director of Old Town Cape.

The downtown group has tossed out the idea of turning the Good Hope Street area into a place for artists to live and work. The idea would require special planning and zoning measures that currently don't exist in the city. Arbiter said Old Town Cape is receiving proposals about how to carry out the plan.

Jackson artist Vicki Outman said Paducah's artists have an advantage.

"We do lack Paducah's incentives to bring artists into the area. If you're here and you're involved in arts you have to work to make your name known and there they are given a venue and advertisement and publicity," Outman said.

Paducah's Artist Relocation Program began in 2000 to turn around a drug-ridden, run-down area and has won a number of awards including the Governors Award in the Arts. The program includes loans at 7 percent from the Bank of Paducah to assist artists in buying property in Lowertown, with the stipulation they do some renovations. Paducah will pay up to $2,500 for architectural services or other professional fees for those renovations. Discounted Web pages and national marketing of the arts district are a few of the other perks.

Artist Paulette Mentor moved to Paducah in September 2004 from Bremerton, Wash., west of Seattle, after her husband died the previous year. She saw a PBS program about the artist program in Paducah and, after visiting the area, decided to make the move.

She says the move was like a leap of faith.

"I was very impressed that there was a symphony; I was very impressed with the Four Rivers Community Arts Center; I was extremely impressed that there were privately owned restaurants in downtown Paducah and there is quite a number of them," Mentor said.

Paducah also supports an enterprise zone, a specific area in the city where artists can buy lumber, building materials and other renovating tools tax free. The enterprise zone expires in 2006, Artist Relocation Program coordinator Mark Barone said.

"I'm very excited about the future of Lowertown," Mentor said.

The layout of Paducah is another reason Mentor moved to the area.

"I love that I could walk to my insurance company, I can walk to the bank, I can walk to church, I can walk to just about everything that I need," Mentor said. "It's nice we walk around the neighborhood, we walk our dogs and we visit with each other. It's extremely friendly and comforting to have an extended family of artists. I love that part."

Mentor found a house she wanted to buy from a local resident in Lowertown and did not participate in the reduced-loan incentive. She is finishing up the renovations to convert an old house into a gallery and home for her.

There aren't any tax breaks for artists in Cape Girardeau. Affordable housing is a problem for many artists.

"In this area there are certain land speculators who are going to keep the prices [of properties] too high for artists to move into," said Craig Thomas, one of Cape Girardeau's more successful and recognized artists.Thomas said he would like to see a cultural neighborhood in Cape similar to Lowertown in Paducah.

"Cape could try a little harder," he said.

Cape Girardeau residents, especially those in the downtown area, are supportive of the art community, he said, but there is always room for improvement.

Outman, the Jackson artist, said community interest and support in Cape Girardeau has grown tremendously in the last few years.

If an artist is willing to put work in a restaurant or a bar there are always places where artists can show off their work, Thomas said.

"Downtown I think is strong in the cultural sense of Cape," Thomas said. "It's the unique signature of Cape Girardeau. I love living downtown."

Thomas has lived in Cape for more than 30 years and said if he didn't like it here he would move. He attended Southeast Missouri State University and stayed to raise his family.

"I felt like I understood this area and it was a great place to raise kids," Thomas said.

Outman returned to the Cape-Jackson area to raise her family and said she loves the rural landscape.

"The rural landscape and the style of living gave me an opportunity to have a lot of subject matter," Outman said.

While a good place to live and raise a family, Thomas said the city isn't an easy town for an artist to start a career.

In cities like St. Louis and Chicago, there is a pliable energy toward the arts that is missing in Cape, Thomas said.

"In a bigger metropolis you are going to have more jobs available to you," Thomas said.

Now that Thomas' children are older, he travels to work in other cities. For the last two and a half months, he worked on a mural on a 20-story building in Chicago.

"You can really get stagnant staying in a town, even a town like this," Thomas said.

Outman said the camaraderie and friendships shared by local artists is another reason why she stays.

"I'm very pleased with how downtown and the younger groups and all of the different venues are opening up," Outman said.

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