BEVERLY — Word of a new children's museum for downtown Peabody and $1.3 million to fund arts and culture initiatives in Essex County brought down the house at a summit held at The Cabot theater Friday morning.
Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt stole the limelight when he announced he plans to seek money from the City Council this fall for a permanent children's museum, following the success of a pop-up venture in the city earlier this year.
"I'm telling you right now, Peabody is going to have a permanent children's museum in our downtown," he said to applause from dozens of arts and culture leaders gathered to hear more about a new round of funding for the Essex County Community Foundation's Creative County Initiative, with $1 million in new funding coming from the Barr Foundation alone.
Bettencourt made his announcement after members of the Peabody Cultural Collaborative outlined the success of CuriousCity, a pop-up museum that drew nearly 7,000 people earlier this year. It was funded in part with a grant from the Essex County Community Foundation, which Bettencourt said was critical to CuriousCity's success.
"I can tell you right now we have purchased some parcels in Peabody Square, right on Main Street and Washington Street, with some parking," Bettencourt said. "Right now, we are getting some quotes to do the work that we need to, but I fully intend to go to the council and in the very near future, within the next few weeks, to seek the funding to take the next step."
The idea for CuriousCity came from a conversation Bettencourt had with Mark Whiting, the Northshore Mall's general manager, who lives in New Hampshire, and who spoke about the success of a children's museum in Dover. In December 2015, city officials visited this museum and were impressed by what they saw.
In an interview after the presentation Friday, Bettencourt was short on specifics, but said the city has been eyeing the former St. Paul's Episcopal Church at 12 Washington St., and the O'Shea Mansion at 2 Washington St. Both properties have been acquired by the city under Bettencourt's administration with the aim of revitalizing the downtown.
Bettencourt planned to ask the council for its support to invest in one or both of those properties, but he did not say which one. That decision has not been made, he said.
While the O'Shea Mansion is a beautiful building with plenty of character, it lacks parking, Bettencourt said. The church building has plenty of parking, which is critical to unlocking the potential of both properties. The parcels are not contiguous, as a house lot separates them on Washington Street.
State Rep. Tom Walsh, D-Peabody, said he loved the idea of the children's museum in the city.
"I think it will bring a lot more vibrancy to downtown Peabody," he said.
When asked about possible state funding for the museum, Walsh replied: "We will try."
The arts and culture summit at The Cabot celebrated the end of the first phase of the Creative County Initiative, which has invested $750,000 in arts and culture in Essex County over the past two years, since partnering with Barr Foundation.
This investment includes $300,000 for 12 projects, such as CuriousCity, the illumination of the historic Ayer Mill Clock Tower in Lawrence and the recent Crossing Water Festival under the Salem-Beverly bridge. Money also was invested in cultural planning, an arts and culture summit and an online platform to promote events and activities called essexcountycreates.org.
Last year, the Essex County Community Foundation raised $250,000 for the arts, which was combined with $500,000 from the Barr Foundation. A $28,000 grant helped seed CuriousCity, which was created by the Peabody Cultural Collaborative.
The pop-up museum cost $100,000 to stage and it included funding from other organizations and businesses.
The new $1.3 million commitment over three years includes $1 million from the Barr Foundation, and $300,000 to be raised by the Essex County Community Foundation. About $400,000 will go to collaborative public arts "placemaking" projects.
"These projects aren't just about new ways to present and sell art, as critically important as that is. Artist shanties give us a new way of thinking about art as colonies in our rapidly gentrifying waterfront towns," said Karen Ristuben, the Creative County Initiative program director, referring to a project in Newburyport.
Grant applications will be open by Jan. 1, she said.
Proof in Peabody
Bettencourt said the city would be open to applying for another Creative County Initiative grant to help fund the permanent children's museum.
"We will be pursuing every opportunity," he said.
Members of the Peabody Cultural Collaborative highlighted the success of the temporary pop-up museum for kids ages 2-10, which was housed at the George Peabody House and Leatherworkers museums at 205 Washington St. this spring and summer.
The museum plans to pop-up again on Oct. 16 in the Leatherworkers Museum, according to its website.
Peabody's director of community development, Curt Bellavance, said the museum attracted 6,700 people during a 90-day period, even though the museum was only open four days a week.
About 40% of visitors used a free pass through their local library on the North Shore. People came from 122 different communities and 22 different states, including a visit from a family from Australia. About 75% of visitors to CuriousCity came from outside Peabody, and 19 different school and camp groups utilized it. Northeast Arc, which works with those with disabilities, ran an early intervention program at the museum.
Businesses in the area saw an increase in sales from those grabbing a cup of coffee or a sandwich, Bellavance said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.
The Essex County Community Foundation's Creative County Initiative funded 12 art and cultural projects in 2019. More than $300,000 was awarded to pay for these projects:
1. Cabot Murals, Beverly: Murals on The Cabot's two large exterior walls were installed by Helen Bur of London and Alex Senna of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
2. CuriousCity, Peabody: A pop-up children's museum at the George Peabody House and Leatherworkers museums showed there is support for a downtown children's museum.
3. Patio: Public Parklets, Lynn: Areas of downtown Lynn were activated by portable, flexible parklets.
4. IM migration, Salem: A sound, laser and augmented reality installation by artist Stephanie Benenson and El Punto Urban Art Museum carried the voices of immigrants who have lived and worked in Salem's Point neighborhood.
5. Illuminating the Ayer Mills Clock Tower, Lawrence: The illuminated iconic tower and Casey Bridge have launched a movement to establish Illuminacion Lawrence.
6. Arts and Culture Shanties, Newburyport: A colony of five artist shanties were installed on the Newburyport waterfront.
7. By Skiff and Basket, Essex: The Essex Shipbuilding Museum trained a group of at-risk high school students from the Northeast Education Consortium to build and launch a classic wooden clamming skiff.
8. Drawing from Our Past: Tri-Town Tape Art Festival, Groveland, West Newbury and Merrimac: Three small towns came alive with a month-long residency of Providence's Tape Art collective to celebrate the area's bicentennial and the growing awareness of public art and how it serves community cohesion and expression.
9. Co-Creating Culture, Lawrence: A new mural at Lawrence Public Library depicts the city's past, present and future.
10. Switch Rideable ArtScape, Ipswich: The Switch is a permanent mixed-media landscape installation at Bialek Park to open this fall.
11. Crossing Water Festival: Over and under the Salem-Beverly Bridge: A week-long arts festival linked Salem and Beverly through visual, narrative, performance, audio and other works.
12. Intertribal Pow Wows, Haverhill, Danvers, Hamilton: Support for three regional pow wows presented by the Massachusetts Native American Awareness Association.