Lexington failed in its first bid to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature, but officials plan to try again when applications are taken next in 2019.
“Obviously, this was a disappointment,” said Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, which led a group of about 25 partners in putting together the application on behalf of the city.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced Tuesday that 64 cities around the world had been designated as Creative Cities in one of seven specialties: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music and media arts. Those included three U.S. cities: Kansas City (music), San Antonio, Texas (gastronomy) and Seattle (literature).
Only one U.S. city could be designated for literature this year.
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“It was us vs. Seattle, and Seattle had tried twice before and been turned down,” Chethik said. “We’re really, really proud of our effort. The mayor told us he’s on board to do it again.”
Other cities designated this year for literature were: Bucheon, South Korea; Durban, South Africa; Lillehammer, Norway; Manchester, England; Milan, Italy; Quebec City, Canada; and Utrecht, the Netherlands.
UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network is designed to help form international cultural partnerships and collaboration, and to help cities market their strengths. There are now 180 Creative Cities Network members in 72 countries.
The only one in Kentucky is Paducah, which was designated in 2013 for crafts and folk art. With the addition of Seattle, the only other U.S. City of Literature is Iowa City, Iowa, home of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa, which in 1936 launched the first master of fine arts degree in creative writing.
Chethik, who created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame at the Carnegie Center, said Lexington has a great claim as the “literary capital of mid-America.” Kentucky has been home to dozens of internationally acclaimed writers, including Robert Penn Warren and Gayl Jones.
One uncertainty for a 2019 application will be whether the United States is a member of UNESCO. President Donald Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from membership. “We don’t know now whether we will be eligible,” Chethik said.
Regardless, he said the application process has strengthened relationships among literary and arts leaders in Lexington and Eastern Kentucky, where writers from Berea and Hindman also were part of the effort.
“We had put together a proposal challenging ourselves to do a lot in the next few years for literacy and literature, and we do intend to go through with it,” he said.