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Quilt Museum celebrates anniversary year, looks forward to growth

BY KAYLAN THOMPSON kthompson@paducahsun.com

T

wenty-five years ago, a plot of land near Paducah's riverfront sat empty, a lone sign standing in its center. It read, "Future home of the quilt museum."

Now, a nationally recognized folk and fiber art museum sits on that spot, celebrating 25 years of serving as a global anchor for art and creativity.

"The key to a story about the museum and its relevance over the last 25 years is that we really do bring the world to Paducah all year long," said Frank Bennett, the museum's chief executive officer. "It's something that people have heard of around the world that gives people a language of Paducah."

The $2.2 million, 27,000 square foot museum is located in downtown Paducah, two blocks from the Ohio River, and welcomes nearly 50,000 visitors from all U.S. states and over 45 countries each year.

The museum began as a sister organization to the American Quilter's Society, both founded by Bill and Meredith Schroeder of Paducah. It was their hope that people across the world would celebrate and experience the artistic work of modern quilters.

When the doors of the museum opened April 25, 1991, the small team of five employees had an inkling, but only that, of what was coming to this river town.

"It has since put Paducah on the map," said Sherry Johnston, volunteer coordinator and museum employee since that first spring day.

"We knew that it was a big thing and knew it was something great for Paducah," she added. "I don't think we had any idea of how many thousands and thousands of people would come to the museum to see these works of art. It's been very thrilling to see it evolve."

Now boasting a collection of over 500 quilts, the museum began with a collection of 90, Johnston said. Hired before the museum was even finished being built, her first task was to unpack the quilts that would become its lifeblood.

"I had never seen anything like these works of art. That was an awakening for me," she said. "I would open the boxes, see these beautiful pieces and the workmanship, and I knew this was really going to be something."

Opening day, she said, was thrilling, a moment she'll never forget. Even moments before the lobby was flooded with donors, dignitaries and community members, the small team of five was rushing to get things in order.

"Boy, do I ever remember that day," she said. "We, the staff, were actually on the inside of the building putting the finishing touches on everything while the big ceremony was going on outside. We were still stocking the gift shop, and we could hear all the excitement out on the lawn."

From the moment she was first captivated by the quilts, Johnston has seen that awe spread through the nation and the world.

"A lot of people think Paducah is just a hometown," she said. "But it's internationally known and a big tourist area and we should be proud of that, play that up and welcome people more. We go to St. Louis or Nashville or Atlanta for entertainment, but we forget what we've got right here."

Ever since opening day, the museum has seen continuous and steady growth, Bennett said.

Through the museum's in-facility and traveling exhibits, educational programs, and advocacy efforts, the museum has introduced millions of people to the artwork it houses.

"The goal of the museum is to get everyone to experience the work of today's quilters," he said. "Our visitor numbers have grown 29 percent in just the five years I've been here, so we're growing aggressively, and we're nowhere near capacity for this museum. I think this trend is going to continue and I'm definitely excited about it."

The museum has won the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for four consecutive years, he added, and is among the highest rated tourist attractions on the site.

This spring, Southern Living Magazine also recognized the prominence of the museum, naming it one of the top 25 museums in the South.

The museum is listed along with other national treasures like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Charleston Museum in South Carolina and the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

As the museum's visitor numbers grow, so do connections via social media platforms, Bennett added. Because of that, he said, the next 25 years will certainly see expansion both physically and digitally.

"Our social media platform is huge, and grows very quickly. I can definitely see more physical expansion occurring, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't occur in the next 25 years," he said. "Sometimes I think when you look backward, you lose track of where you started to get to that point. Now is a great moment to look back, but it's also a great moment to look forward, because, frankly, it's amazing where we've gotten to, but I still think we're just scratching the surface."

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