A River Runs Through It

Aug 9, 2019Arts & Culture, News & Announcements

ECCF Kicks off Asset Mapping in the Merrimack Valley

Michelle Xiarhos Curran, ECCF Communications Writer

Groups of people sat around tables on which scatterings of art supplies lay: some crayons, markers, colorful rolls of tape and a blank canvas.

“If we can create an environment through art that allows people to be a little more vulnerable and share their stories, we can make progress,” said Marquis Victor, poet, artist and founding executive director of Elevated Thought, a Lawrence-based nonprofit that merges youth, art and social justice.

Victor was giving instructions on creating a collaborative piece of art, one that represented the places and events that bring meaning to a community and give it an identity. After a half-hour of discussion and creativity, each group shared their masterpiece. And some common themes emerged: trails, bridges, gathering places and the river.

“Water connects so many of the towns,” said Elaine Clements, executive director of the Andover Center for History and Culture.

Clements was one of about 60 people that gathered at the Haverhill campus of the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub on Aug. 7 for the kickoff event to Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative Merrimack Valley Asset Mapping Project. The project aims to not only physically identify the arts and cultural assets in the 15 Merrimack Valley communities located in Essex County, but also to forge connections between them and the people they serve.

Those cities and towns include Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimack, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury.

“Our goal here is to build capacity for collaboration within and between these communities, which includes building relationships and connections among arts, culture and community groups, as well as with municipal governments and agencies,” said Karen Ristuben, program director for ECCF’s Creative County Initiative. “The process of collecting your stories and your values is as important if not more so than the list that lives on a website.”

The project is a collaboration between ECCF, the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission (MVPC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). Led by Victor, the project’s partner artist, and community building expert Tom Borrup of Creative Community Builders – a Minneapolis-based consulting team focused on leveraging cultural assets to revitalize communities – the project also engages area artists, arts and cultural nonprofits, planners and municipal, business and community leaders in the process.

“We haven’t put everyone in the same room before,” said Nate Robertson, community and economic planner for the MVPC. “Our cultural assets have not been traditionally viewed as part of community and economic development.”

This asset mapping project and ECCF’s larger Creative County Initiative – a partnership with Boston-based Barr Foundation to elevate arts and culture in Essex County – aims to change that.

“We’re really trying to establish arts and culture as a core competency in planning,” said Annis Sengupta, assistant director of arts and culture at MAPC.

Borrup, who recently helped lead a successful cultural planning process in Worcester, explained how asset mapping reveals both a community’s tangible assets: museums, studios, festivals and bookstores, for example, and its intangible assets: shared stories and values; identity and belonging; and skills and traditions.

“What we’re going to be doing over the next few months is to start getting creative about mapping,” said Borrup, who added that though the work is hard, it’s also fun. “If civic work does not at least have some dimension of enjoyment, why would you want to keep doing it?”

The Merrimack Valley asset mapping project is expected to take between 8-10 months, according to Ristuben, during which ECCF will host a series of sub-regional workshops across this section of the Merrimack Valley to collect the needed data.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Ristuben said. “And we want all of you to spread the word, to think about who else should be at the table for these discussions.”

“We want to involve as many people as possible in this type of work,” Borrup added.

“I think it’s very, very crucial that we understand the privileges we have by being in this room,” said Victor. “But we have to ask, ‘who is NOT sitting at the table?’  We have to challenge ourselves to ensure those voices are heard.”

Earlier in the day, Borrup – who has been leading cultural planning work in communities across the U.S. for 15 years – flipped to a slide in his presentation, a quote from French scholar Michel de Certeau.

“What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”

There was a perceptible murmur of agreement among the people in the room, many of whom at the end of the day, expressed their excitement at the potential this project has for the Merrimack Valley, and for Essex County.

“I heard a lot of common threads, which is what I preach,” said Claudia Vanegas, a social worker who was drawn to the project for its potential impact on young people. “We have more in common than what we don’t.”

“Coming here reminded me of the diverse nature of people that make up the North Shore,” said Asia Scudder, a wire artist based in Amesbury. “It is so nice to see the people, the diversity and the inclusion, so thank you.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Attendees of the Asset Mapping Kickoff work collaboratively on a piece of art depicting arts and cutlural resources in the Merrimack Valley.