COLUMN IN THE SALEM NEWS
By Karen Ristuben
Artists will always make art. They will forever paint, play music, dance, create stories and bring those stories to life on stage.
But now more than ever before, artists and arts and culture organizations – smaller ones with limited resources, especially – need more opportunities to elevate their work, widen their networks and reach new audiences.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – which continues to shutter in-person arts experiences across the region – ECCF has deepened its efforts to strengthen Essex County’s creative ecosystem through Creative County, a multi-million investment in local arts, culture and the creative sector. Most recently, the group has been testing what it means for individual artists and small arts and culture organizations to have access to and experience the support of a full production and promotion team to elevate their work and their live and virtual events.
For Cultura Latina, a nonprofit dance academy in Lynn that teaches Latin dance and educates students about its roots, this meant storytelling and visibility for an organization struggling to be seen. For Exposed Brick, a new Lawrence-based literary magazine, this meant a full production team for their launch event and dynamic digital content to use for future fundraising. And for Gloucester’s Manship Artists Residency, this meant professional lighting, sound and video production support for one in a series of outdoor jazz concerts featuring multiple artists.
“The production support took our event to a different level for the audience and the performers,” said Rebecca Reynolds, executive director of Manship. “The lighting, sound system and video recording was at a professional level, something we could not have been able to offer otherwise. This experience has expanded what we envision as possible and has connected us with vendors who have suggested ways we can reasonably increase the production value of our events.”
“This experience brought us resources we didn’t know we needed,” said Y-Bình Nguyen, co-founder and literary editor of Exposed Brick. “The lights, photo backdrop, sound and video support allowed us to create and present our work without stress and helped us on our road to sustainability.”
In all, 14 organizations across Essex County were supported by this pilot. But its ripple effect spread so much further.
“We know that creative workers need support beyond individual events,” said John Andrews, a member of the Creative County team and owner of North Shore-based Creative Collective. “We’re continuously engaging with these organizations and artists to ask them, ‘What do you need to thrive?’ ‘Who can we connect you with?’ It’s about developing long-term relationships and sustainable models to strengthen the entire arts and culture ecosystem.”
Part of that system is the incredible network of working artists, creative small businesses and gig workers that exists in Essex County. More than 40 freelancers were hired and nearly 100 artists were indirectly supported throughout this pilot, giving many creatives the chance to begin to recover from the devastating economic impact of the pandemic.
“When you look at those numbers, you can begin to understand the incredible potential this has,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “Imagine a sustainable system that not only elevates the work of artists and organizations, but also supports the creative workforce, inspires collaborative learning that is shared and replicated, and increases equity in the arts. If you do that, then championing this work becomes a no-brainer, and we hope to be able to continue testing this unique service in 2022.”
This pilot is part of a larger body of Creative County work to intentionally build a regional arts and culture hub that was funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project Grant Program. The grant also supported a dynamic new Creative County website that is in its final stages of development.
In addition to comprehensive regional arts and cultural event listings, the website will offer individual artists and organizations a shared digital space to create profiles to share and promote their work – a powerful resource for those with limited means to develop and maintain their own website. It will also include publicity opportunities on the site’s blog, links to valuable social media promotion and access to a video channel and community gallery where artists and organizations can post their work and the public can experience and support it.
We believe that these combined resources are critical to developing a system of support in Essex County that enables artists and arts and cultural organizations – of all shapes and sizes – to thrive. And we believe this work is vital because arts and culture bring life to our communities and help them to prosper.
Most importantly, arts and culture educate us and provide a sense of meaning and belonging. They challenge us to think critically about social injustices. They bring beauty to the world. And they are the beating heart of human connection and understanding.
If you are an artist or member of an arts or cultural organization, you can help build the collective effort for a robust regional resource for arts and culture. Create a page for yourself or your organization and post your arts and culture events by visiting CreativeCounty.org, where visitors can also learn more about how to support this work.