HAVERHILL — Arts and culture groups throughout the region that typically operate independently of each other came together on Wednesday to discuss ways of promoting their efforts to the public and finding ways of supporting each other.

During a kickoff event at the UMass Lowell iHub, officials from several community planning organizations outlined a plan to identify, connect and map the people, places, organizations and events that reflect the history, values and culture of the 15 Essex County communities.

Those communities include Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury, Groveland, Georgetown, Rowley, Salisbury, Amesbury, Merrimac, Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Methuen, Boxford and Haverhill.

Called "asset mapping," this year-long effort is being led by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The two organizations were awarded a grant from the Essex County Community Foundation to undertake this mapping project.

"Asset mapping – which involves the identification and inventory of both tangible and intangible cultural assets – is foundational to cultural planning,” said Karen Ristuben, program director of ECCF's Creative County Initiative. "Our goal here is to build capacity for collaboration within and between the 15 communities of the Merrimack Valley, which includes building relationships and connections among arts, culture and community groups, as well as with municipal governments and agencies."

More than 50 people, including area artists, planners, nonprofits, government officials, community members and others attended the kickoff event, which included a brainstorming session to highlight art and culture assets in their communities.

Nate Robertson, community and economic development planner for the MVPC, which is based in Haverhill, explained that this kickoff event was the start of a process in which varied cultural institutions can begin working together, with the goal of creating a map of cultural resources in the participating communities.

"We'll be discussing what art and culture resources people feel are important and how we can help art and culture in the Merrimack Valley," he said.

Following several informational talks about the mapping process, Marquis Victor, executive director of Elevated Thought, a nonprofit Lawrence-based organization that engages young people in public and private art initiatives, led a small group workshop where attendees gathered at tables to share an activity, place, artwork, cultural or historic treasure that has great meaning in their communities.

"This is a collaborative workshop held to think, talk and listen," he told the many groups gathered around tables.

Haverhill artist Jeff Grassie informed his group of the Haverhill Farmers Market.

"It's a culture asset because it's a place where people can meet on Saturdays, purchase products from local vendors, enjoy live music and take part in fun activities," he said. "People come from surrounding towns because it's such a great gathering place."

Hartell Johnson, a member of the Haverhill Cultural Council, shared a bit of Haverhill's shoe manufacturing history, while Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, co-chair of the Andover Arts and Culture Alliance, talked about Andover's walking trails and their value to the community.

At another table, Maryann Sandagopan, a member of Andover's Center for History and Culture, shared her excitement about Andover's historic mill district.

"To me, a very important element of our community is to revive these buildings with more businesses and more housing," she said. "We need more art and culture integration."

Anabelle Rondon of Haverhill, great neighborhoods manager for the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, held up a poster with images her group created to highlight natural resources and cultural assets in the region, including images of water, mill buildings and immigrant restaurants.

"There's also an image of a farm, which we wanted to include as area farms have been lost over time," she said.

Erin Padilla, director of Creative Haverhill, said the kickoff event was unique in that no other events bring together so many art and culture organizations under one roof.

"It's setting some great examples for creating partnerships," she said.

Grassie said he plans to stay involved in the mapping process.

"Other communities are doing this, and so can we," he said.

Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative, a partnership with the Barr Foundation, mobilizes the region’s artists, arts and culture organizations and community and business leaders to collectively enhance the quality of life in Essex County. 

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