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Mapping out Merrimack Valley’s cultural treasures

Merrimack Valley residents will soon have a new tool to learn about many of the artistic and cultural opportunities available in the region — from art shows and music festivals to historic sites and dance classes.

The Essex County Community Foundation is creating a digital map of the people, places, and events that contribute to the history and culture of the 15 Merrimack Valley communities in Essex County: Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimack, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury.

The 10-month initiative, which the nonprofit is undertaking in partnership with the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, kicks off at an Aug. 7 event where artists, municipal planners, nonprofit leaders, and other community members are invited to share ideas on what to include in the map. The session is set for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, 110 Canal St., in Haverhill.

The future map — a dynamic searchable database — will be posted on the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission website.


The mapping project is part of a larger two-year-old Creative County Initiative the foundation is undertaking through a $500,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.

That broader effort seeks to build connections among artists, cultural groups, and local governments to support the region’s creative economy and enhance quality of life.

“We want to strengthen the arts sector so artists and art organizations can thrive rather than just survive as many do on a day-to-day basis,” said Karen Ristuben, director for the Creative County Initiative.

She said supporting the arts brings larger benefits, including making communities “safer, healthier, and better places to create and thrive,” which in turn helps the local economy. “Businesses like to have their employees come to a community that has a really vibrant arts sector.”


One feature of the initiative involves helping municipalities incorporate arts and culture in their planning. The map-making project extends that work.

“Mapping is a very necessary part of cultural planning because you can’t really plan something if you don’t know who’s out there,” Ristuben said.

The project team is being led by Tom Borrup, an expert on community cultural building, and Lawrence artist Marquis Victor. The project will be the first to use new cultural mapping software developed by the MAPC.

Because the map will only encompass the valley’s Essex County communities, those in Middlesex County — including Lowell — will not be included. But Ristuben said one goal is to demonstrate mapping techniques that can be replicated by other communities. The foundation also plans to expand its own map to all of Essex County in a subsequent phase of the project.

Karen Conard, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said her agency is excited to participate in the Creative County Initiative, which she said is helping forge “a conversation with our member communities about the value of incorporating arts and cultural planning into other types of planning we do.

“We’ve been successful in presenting this concept to the municipal planners and look forward to championing the effort as we all learn how to digitally map these assets. We want it to be part of their efforts moving forward to grow and enrich what they do for their communities.”


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.