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When we connected during the first few days of 2021, John Andrews of Creative Collective was taking his first break since the rest of the world shut down. 

“The day we went into lockdown, we went into overdrive,” he says. The Creative Collective was defining the word “pivot” for other small businesses on the North Shore, helping them put events online, build their branding, and find ways to stay afloat during a bad year they never saw coming. 

John Andrews. Photograph by Jared Charney

The Creative Collective has about 200 members across the North Shore. These members are creative businesses, artists, museums, and restaurants. The new mantra became, says Andrews: “Take a deep breath, fix your website, make sure your messaging is consistent. Photograph products.” In other words, do the things you can’t do when you’re busy serving your customers. 

This steady stream of COVID-19 business solutions earned Andrews an award, Salem Person of the Year for 2020, according to the Essex Media Group. The guy about town with a big-lensed camera always dangling from his neck started out in Salem about a decade ago, as the manager of what was then Victoria Station in Pickering Wharf, now home to Finz. He had been interested in photography since high school and found that he was free to market the place however he wanted. He enjoyed taking pictures of the food. Then it became hosting events with local partners, which led to an epic dance party for the LGBT community with a big nightclub feel on the wharf. 

“I recognized quickly that there was a giant creative community in Salem who wanted all of this stuff like music and performances,” he says. As an only child, growing up in Stoneham, Andrews realized early on that he needed community and once in Salem, he loved the community he found. Partnering on events made him realize that the idea of teamwork, of collaborating, of building a collective is inherent to who he is. 

Photograph by John Andrews

Soon, he formed a nonprofit organization and partnered with all sorts of businesses and with the City of Salem. He was producing events all over town at any venue he could get his hands on, big and small. He began to collaborate with the Peabody Essex Museum on evening events, bringing in other local organizations, documenting each one to tell the story of the evening on social media for those who couldn’t attend. He photographed and marketed the growing number of festivals in Salem dedicated to the arts. He has since put on a performance series at North Shore Mall, of all places, and packed drive-in movies projected onto the hangar at Salem’s Winter Island. But, back then, it was difficult to make money. 

“I was ready to throw in the towel completely,” remembers Andrews. “Then, I had a very generous person throw me some money with the caveat of making the business what I always wanted. The reality is that Creative Collective was born out of complete frustration for creative small businesses.” 

 Photograph by John Andrews

In 2017, with the money came a real business plan toward his dream of community-building. Andrews had an investor. Today, with a dedicated staff of six, the mission of Creative Collective is to work with modern, open-minded businesses looking to make the world a more artistic, cultural, and creative place. 

Relying on this creativity helped businesses survive the pandemic. What makes the creative community sometimes intimidating, says Andrews, is the ability for creative types to excel in a crisis such as the pandemic. “It’s flexibility,” he says. “They have an inherent ability to be light on their feet. To be able to see things in multiple ways.” 

When the City of Salem closed streets and encouraged restaurants to move their dining outdoors last summer, leaders called on Creative Collective to help. Andrews solicited artists to paint murals on the Jersey barriers protecting tables from cars. This led to similar projects in Beverly, Lynn, and Peabody. “This crisis has honestly been fantastic for us in many ways,” says Andrews. “We lost a ton of money, but we were able to put ourselves at the forefront of economic development.” 

When a restaurant opens, such as two coffee shops in Salem during the beginning of the year, Andrews can tell you who painted motifs on their walls and the collaborations that made their spaces inviting and unique. A weekly newsletter includes socially distanced fun like virtual wine tastings, books penned by local authors, and how to get biscuits dropped at your door. 

Spring Tweed Ride. Photograph by John Andrews

Public art, another passion for Andrews, has helped spread public awareness about both Black Lives Matter and social distancing. “The wellness and the psychology of the community needs healing and all of that happens through creativity and public art,” he says. “You pay a premium for yoga or a doctor, but we don’t pay artists. The logic of it is off and I’m trying to figure out why.”

As he looks to a post-pandemic future, Andrews recalls how the 1918 pandemic was followed by a period of cultural transformation. “What is going to come out of this one?” he wonders. “A creative renaissance? That would be swell.”

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