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Cultural District Convening Evokes Agora

Luis Cotto, Program Manager

Attendees of the 2019 Cultural District Convening take in some of Worcester's murals.
Attendees of the 2019 Cultural District Convening take in some of Worcester’s murals.

agoraag-er-uh ]

  • a popular political assembly.
  • the place where such an assembly met, originally a marketplace or public square.
  • the Agora, the chief marketplace of Athens, center of the city’s civic life.

“Evoking feelings of Agora” is how one stakeholder described the recent Cultural District convening in Worcester’s Salisbury Cultural District. This feedback left us scratching our heads … until we looked more deeply at the word, and the day.

Our annual Cultural District Convening took place on October 1 at the Worcester Art Museum with breakout sessions also taking place in Tuckerman Hall. Some 70 people from 35 of the Commonwealth’s 48 Cultural Districts came together to learn from each other and take away best practices and new connections.

After a welcome from our host Matthias Waschek, Director of the Worcester Art Museum and Co-Chair of the Cultural District Partnership, City Manager Edward M. Augustus and Mass Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker, our assembly got to work. The day’s agenda featured District managers speaking to their strengths and answering some great questions.

The Natick Cultural District gave a presentation on how they’ve partnered with MAPC to effectuate some incredible placemaking/placekeeping initiatives in their district. This had key information about putting out an RFP, creating a selection Committee, and working with the local Public Works — all the ins and outs of making these initiatives happen.

Easthampton presented on their Easthampton Futures Project and engaging a whole community in their cultural planning process. Community engagement is by far the biggest obstacle for many municipalities in any planning process. Easthampton gave us some great examples of how to do it right.

Worcester led a bus tour of a selection of their murals made through their Pow! Wow! Worcester festival. In a state that is filled with incredible street mural initiatives, Worcester is the head of the pack. Hearing from municipal arts hero, Che Anderson, showed us why.

We also heard from Jordi Albareda about his global Fair Saturday initiative and how Massachusetts and our Cultural Districts will be the first state in the US to participate! This session also featured a presentation from our signature Spring collaboration event in Artweek. Lead Champion Sue Dahling Sullivan gave a recap on a great 2019 event and prepared everyone for what should be a record breaking 2020. (Want to know more? Check out their Spark Sessions calendar.)

Even with all of this, the day’s agenda was intentional about allowing time for people to just talk and learn from each other’s experiences. Each breakout allowed time for people to talk amongst themselves about the preceding session and how the theme does, or could, happen in their town or city. Worcester Art Museum was closed on this day, so participants were also able to enjoy this incredible treasure in the heart of the Commonwealth.

We highlighted some local artists as well. John Vo “live painted” a panel session where stakeholders from Maynard, Rockport, and Arlington spoke about their cultural districts, and letterpress artisan Jesse Marsolais of Marsolais Press custom made certificates for our nine re-designated cultural districts.

So, as we look at a day that convened a group of placemakers and placekeepers to help them in their journey of community-building in an incredible institution known for its vast Greek and Roman collection and houses the one-of-a-kind Renaissance Court, how can this serendipitous stew not evoke “Agora”? We accept the compliment and accept the challenge to make the 2020 convening just as fruitful as 2019.

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