A group of teens dance outside.

A Renaissance for Creativity in Essex County

Progress, projects, and early lessons from Essex County Community Foundation, two years in to its Creative County Initiative.

It’s hard to believe that only 12 months ago, the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) publicly launched our first major effort in the arts. Leading up to that moment, with support from the Barr Foundation through the Creative Commonwealth Initiative and our many local donors, ECCF spent a year convening and learning how to best invest in our region’s artists, art nonprofits, and local and regional cultural planning efforts. Now, the Creative County Initiative is fully underway. Our efforts are moving fast and gaining traction in more ways than we ever imagined possible. We have spent time learning from and engaging with the arts, culture, and creativity ecosystem in our region and our efforts are stronger because of this partnership work. This post offers a glimpse of our efforts to date. It previews some of the exciting things coming this year. We also share some of our most important lessons so far.

Cultural Planning Labs

Through a partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, we completed four “Cultural Planning Labs.” These introduced cultural planning concepts and resources to all 34 Essex County communities. Over 130 municipal leaders, town planners, and nonprofit leaders attended. The five key learnings from these sessions were:

  1. The Creative County Initiative has effectively catalyzed a new conversation about community culture among local leaders from arts and culture, government, business, and philanthropy leaders.
  2. Advancing cultural initiatives and equity requires this kind of cross-sector leadership. It also takes a base of operations – a role ECCF is uniquely suited to play.
  3. The region’s arts and culture ecosystem is ready and able to provide coordination, technical assistance, and support to all areas of community development.
  4. The region’s arts and culture sector can benefit from templates, toolkits, and trainings. These will enable the sector to share best practices, processes, and program prototypes.
  5. Future Creative County Initiative work can spark new funding from new sources for community-driven arts and culture.

This spring, ECCF will further its work with the two regional planning agencies, to develop new models for regional cultural asset-mapping and shared community arts staffing, and to provide technical assistance support for communities ready to commence cultural planning initiatives.

EssexCountyCreates.org – A New Arts and Culture Calendar

With over 180 arts and culture organizations, venues, and artists registered, and over 2,000 social media followers, essexcountycreates.org is becoming a go-to resource for Essex County. A major public launch in March 2019 included promotion on thirteen billboards.

Public Art and Placemaking Grants

In 2018, we planned, funded, and scheduled 12 projects that are launching this year. Each features a partnership of arts and culture, business, philanthropic, and government leaders - all working together to foster community identity, to strengthen our regional arts and culture ecosystem, and to contribute to safe, healthy, connected communities. Details on all projects can be found at essexcountycreates.org.

Figure 1a A map of Creative County Initiative public art and creative placemaking events.

Here is a bit about each of the twelve:

  1. Co-Creating Culture – a mural and light installation celebrating Lawrence’s past, present, and future at Lawrence Public Library.
  2. Pow wows hosted in Danvers and Hamilton by the Massachusetts Native American Awareness Association.
  3. Artists in residence from Tape Art creating hundreds of life-sized silhouettes depicting residents from this century or the last will be found throughout the tri-town communities of Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury.
  4. Artist Shanties built by the community in Newburyport to provide space for artists and artisans to show, perform, or make their work along the waterfront.
  5. “Switch Rideable Artscape” – a performance platform, outdoor art studio and gallery, and a rideable concrete canvas for boarders and skaters of all ages and abilities in Bialek Park, Ipswich.
  6. A new project led by the Essex Shipbuilding Museum working with residents and students to build classic clamming baskets, and a skiff they’ll launch at the end of May.
  7. “CuriousCity” – a new children’s museum of art and industry in Peabody.
  8. Downtown Lynn activated by portable, flexible public “parklets,” created by a dynamic partnership including Beyond Walls and the City of Lynn.
  9. A multidisciplinary art and augmented reality installation in Salem’s Point neighborhood to carry the voices of immigrants who have lived and worked there, past and present.
  10. “Crossing Water Festival” - a week of arts and creative programming to activate the waterfront on both sides of the Salem-Beverly Bridge.
  11. New public murals that will cover two large exterior walls of Beverly’s Cabot Theatre.
  12. Illumination of the Ayer Mills Clock Tower and a celebration of movement and light along the river and canal of downtown Lawrence.

We have been fascinated by the learnings arising from these demonstration projects. The most significant by-product we see is the cultivation of ideas and relationships that spur continued collaboration and work past the “project date” in many of these efforts. Future projects and community transformation is being generated before our very eyes.

2nd Annual Essex County Arts and Culture Summit

On September 27, ECCF will host our second annual arts and culture summit. This year, our focus will be diversity, equity and inclusion; cultural space development; and plans for the next phase of Creative County Initiative projects. For more information, visit ECCF’s arts summit page.

Supporting all of this work is Creative County Initiative’s terrific Steering Committee. They are now both evaluating our first two years and helping us shape the work ahead. We are so grateful for their partnership with us, and for ECCF’s opportunity to participate in the Creative Commonwealth Initiative. And we are excited about the many ways we will continue to deepen and broaden the impacts of arts and creativity in our communities for years to come.

Learn more about Barr's Creative Commonwealth Initiative

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Karen Ristuben

Guest Author Program Director, Creative County Initiative Essex County Community Foundation