Arts & Culture Summit Informs, Inspires and Surprises

Oct 1, 2019Arts & Culture, Feature Story

Michelle Xiarhos Curran

Beverly, MA – You could hear a pin drop at The Cabot late Friday morning, Sept. 27, when Gloucester poet Caroline Harvey took the stage to deliver a powerful message about the transformative and essential role of arts and culture in our lives.

Her words were a call to action – a stirring appeal to recall how art makes you feel and connect  – for the nearly 400 arts and culture advocates attending the 2019 Essex County Arts & Culture Summit, produced by Essex County Community Foundation as part of its Creative County Initiative (CCI), a partnership with the Barr Foundation to elevate arts and culture in Essex County.

“Art is both foundation & frame,” Harvey said. Her spoken word performance, commissioned for the Summit and lasting a full 10 minutes, elicited a standing ovation from the crowd.

[Read Harvey’s poem in its entirety and view a video of her performance here.]

The 2019 Summit was a celebration of the two years of systems work to strengthen arts, culture and creativity in Essex County that has occurred since 2017, when ECCF first received funding from Barr through its Creative Commonwealth Initiative, a push to help the creative sector become more sustainable, equitable, and accessible statewide.

“We viewed community foundations as the ideal partners in this work,” said Barr’s Director of Arts & Creativity E. San San Wong, who spoke at the Summit about ECCF’s “keen understanding” of the important role arts and culture play in thriving communities. “This alignment of vision is why I’m so happy to be here today.”

The pilot phase investment of CCI totaled $750,000: $500,000 from Barr and $250,000 raised by ECCF. At the Summit, Karen Ristuben, ECCF’s Creative County Initiative Program Director, highlighted the work that funding supported, including cultural planning and asset mapping projects; the development of, a regional online arts calendar; and 12 creative placemaking and public arts projects, which were featured in a moving video about what the Creative County Initiative has meant to the region.

“This is the work of the Creative County Initiative. These 12 inaugural projects were more than the tremendous art and artistry of the grantees,” Ristuben told the audience, which was made up of artists and nonprofit, municipal, community and business leaders. “It’s what the art inspired, who the art connected and the communities that were transformed by the art itself.”

Then, to enthusiastic applause, Ristuben made public the details of a new $1.3 million investment to continue these critical efforts for Essex County’s arts ecosystem. This second round of funding – which includes $1 million in support from Barr and another $300,000 commitment from ECCF – will sustain the Foundation’s Creative County Initiative over the next three years.

“We are so grateful for the opportunity to expand on the work of the last two years with this support from the Barr Foundation,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “The Foundation will continue to invest deeply in the systems that allow regional arts and culture to flourish, thrive and strengthen and connect our communities.”

In addition to the exciting funding announcement, the Summit featured speakers Jason Schupbach, director of The Design School at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston; and David Howse, senior associate vice president of Emerson College and executive director of ArtsEmerson.

Schupbach, one of the founding leaders of the creative placemaking movement, spoke about his work with the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grantmaking program and what collaboration and creative placemaking can do for a community. “I’m so excited to be in a room in Massachusetts where people are talking about working regionally, “he said.

Elliott-Ortega, former director of policy and planning for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, discussed her work implementing Boston Creates, the city’s 10-year cultural plan. “This was something the city hadn’t done for a long time so there was a lot of pent-up energy,” she said. Elliott-Ortega discussed in detail the goals, progress and assessment of the Boston plan and offered practical tips for Essex County. “All of the major issues we’re tackling, they are regional issues and it’s great to see this group come together.”

Howse, who is fiscally and administratively responsible for multiple cultural venues in downtown Boston, is a recognized commentator on the arts, social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion. He spoke at the Summit about the “good intentions” and the “problematic consequences” that the trending topic of social justice brings about. Four years ago, when he joined ArtsEmerson, Howse said, “When I pulled back the curtain and looked at our production team, we had predominantly white men.” He urged that boards, staff and donors reflect the communities where we do our work. “Each one of us in this room has the power to leave this world a little better than we found it, more civil, more just and more connected.”

[Stay connected to for information on a Feb. 13, 2020 workshop with David Howse.]

The Summit also included a panel discussion on the collaboration that brought CCI grantee project, CuriousCity, a pop-up children’s museum (that soon may become permanent), to Peabody and performances by the Generation Khmer Cambodian Dance Troupe and the Mass Center for Native American Awareness Inter-Tribal Dancers, who ushered people arm-and-arm in dance out of The Cabot and over to the historic Dane Street Church for lunch and breakout sessions.

Lunch was catered by nonprofit Root, and then participants settled in for several breakout sessions on creative space development; Essex County’s “Creative Web;” asset-mapping and a case study of Lawrence, MA, where organizations are fostering equitable inclusion through dynamic collaboration, public art and placemaking.

Jess Martinez, City of Lawrence TDI Fellow for Mass Development; Evan Silverio, chair of the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority, Brad Buschur, project director at Groundwork Lawrence; and Marquis Victor, executive director of Elevated Thought, were on hand to discuss Illuminacion Lawrence and Co-Creating Culture, two CCI-funded projects that are inspiring new thinking about how a city can deploy limited resources to spawn a renaissance.

“We want to create beautification, but we want to create unification as well,” said Victor, who talked about the in-depth community engagement and cross-sector collaboration occurring in Lawrence right now.

“Despite coming from different organizations and having different missions, we have come together,” said Martinez.

Andover resident Steve Fink was on hand to listen to the Lawrence team discuss their collaborative efforts in the city-wide lighting and large-scale mural projects. And he let the group know that the Lawrence example has been an inspiration to the City’s neighbor to the south. Andover is also discussing potential plans for a lighting project of its own.

“Great stuff is happening in Lawrence and it’s spreading,” Fink said. “Thank you all.”

That’s the power of community, the power of collaboration. And it’s the power of the Creative County Initiative: uniting people and connecting the communities of Essex County through art.

“I support everything ECCF is doing,” said Julie Cook, a storyteller and communications professional who attended the Summit. “I embrace public art in all its forms and it’s great to see it all come together.”

Many agreed, and described their experience at the Summit as informative, powerful and inspirational.

“The energy in the room, among all of these passionate people who believe in the transformative power of art and the impact that we can create by working together, was palpable,” said Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s COO and vice president for community leadership. “We look forward to the collective work that lies ahead to provide pathways and opportunities for art and culture to strengthen the cities and towns of Essex County.”

To learn more about how you can get involved and spread the word about the Creative County Initiative, please visit

PHOTO CAPTION: The Mass Center for Native American Awareness Inter-Tribal Dancers perform for the hundreds of attendees of the 2019 Essex County Arts & Culture Summit. PHOTO BY MARILYN HUMPHRIES