Last month, Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) broke ground for the construction of a new $12.9 million campus in north Minneapolis. The Black-led arts education nonprofit was founded in 1995, when Roger and DeAnna Cummings, along with Peyton Scott Russell, started a small after-school arts program. JXTA has offered young people training on creating, presenting and successfully monetizing their art ever since, and the long-awaited rebuild is expected to begin in late October after a three-year capital campaign. MinnPost spoke to Roger Cummings, one of the co-founders and current chief cultural producer of JXTA, about the road that led to the new building, and where the organization goes from here. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
MinnPost: Tell me exactly how you guys got started.
Roger Cummings: So it started as kind of an after-school program that showed young people how to create art, how to talk about art, how to exhibit art, and how to make money from their art. The program that we have now that’s closest to that is called Visual Arts Literacy Training, so you do things like still life, you do portraiture, you learn about line, balance, color, scale and proportion, art history, how to talk about work, how to get feedback, how to give feedback, and then how to exhibit and hang your work, price your work and things like that. And back then nobody was doing that!
Art was just kind of a cute thing maybe at the park house, and anybody who thought about their friends or kids being an artist they’re like, “Oh, they’re gonna be broke and living in the basement at some point.” And we didn’t believe in that. We knew that you could make money doing this, and we would train young people so they wouldn’t be broke. Our thing was how do you monetize your practice? We were able to sell young people’s work early on — the first exhibitions all the way on up to current — they would get like 85% of what it sold for. So, eight, nine, ten-year-olds were making two, three, four hundred, five hundred dollars. We would start a bank account for them, and that would help the parents, and that would help them get school clothes and like that whole thing. It made sense to them, it made sense to us, and it was doing a service that we didn’t realize we could do until we actually did it.
MP: Between starting out as an after-school program and where you are now, was there ever an “aha!” moment where you realized that this was going to be something bigger?
RC: Yeah, and that happened probably in 2003-04. We started to travel to different places. When we moved in here in 2002, to 2007 North Emerson [Avenue], we started doing programs for a year or two, and then just kinda looked around. There’s lots of condemned buildings, and we’re poppin’ over here and it’s nice and shiny but the neighborhood isn’t getting any better. What can we do to improve that? … So we started to look at places that were arts centers but they impacted the neighborhood, and we started to say “What more can the artwork do?” and we should get outside of our gallery.
That’s when we started to do a lot of environmental design and community engagement… [We] asked people what really works here and what doesn’t work here well and what are some solutions to be able to fix it… We started to get a list of things that we could improve. We could do benches, we could paint crosswalks, and we could advocate on behalf of people that the city didn’t know [about]. So the city would hire us for things like that, and that’s how we started to impact the built natural environment.
That was kinda the “aha” moment. It’s more than just cute paintings on the wall, it’s the built natural environment, and we also saw that in those organizations there were engines, there were things that generated money, beyond the art. We created these things that we call labs, which are like small business entities, and they generated money for the classes. Then, we were able to pay the young people a stipend and then an hourly wage, and now we’re able to pay even part time people health insurance, dental insurance, PTO, things like that.
Then we went to school to be able to get our education up and figure out how we could actually scale. … When we came back, we really hit the ground running and started to bring people in from all over the world to look at what we’re doing, to get ideas and to scale some of that work.
MP: If you could, in one sentence, how would you describe what JXTA is now?
RC: It is an art and design hub for youth to actualize their economic and creative power. People come from all over. You have private school kids, you have homeless kids, and everybody in between. It impacts them both, in that, even if you have a trust fund, when you make your own money, that is validating. It also dispels the myth that if you come over to North, you’re gonna get robbed or you’re gonna get in trouble or whatever. I’ve been here since I was a young person, like a teen, shopping and living here. I haven’t been robbed, I haven’t been shot at, or anything. Young people get to see that. Every day — on campus or here when it’s dark — they take the bus home, and everybody’s been safe. It’s a safe space, it’s an educational space, and it’s an innovative creative space.
MP: When it comes to the planning of the new building, when did you start thinking that that was gonna happen?
RC: So, just pie in the sky, we’ve always thought about having a building. Back in the middle ’90s it looked more like the pyramid in Memphis… Everybody was like “No don’t buy a building, it’s gonna cost too much,” that whole thing. In probably 2002, … one of my old friends from high school — who was going to school at Parsons and grad school to be an architect — came up and was like these are all the things you can do with your new space. I heard you’re buying a building, even though it’s condemned, I’m doing architecture on the concept of hip hop… He kept pumping that and analyzing the neighborhood, and then [he and others] started the environmental design arm of JXTA. Then we’d have graphic design, environmental design, screen printing and contemporary art. … He did kind of a sculptural element of a giant wheel from 2007, 2017, 2027, and beyond, and you could see the evolution of the block.
He helped make that manifest visually and then DeAnna helped: this is what it would take to get that kind of money and to get that kinda space. We did feasibility studies and people were like, “Yeah, no, you’re never gonna raise that kind of money,” and then we would ask what it was gonna take to raise that kind of money … Those are the things that we had in mind when we went to grad school, and started putting those things in place. It was just very tedious over the years, bit by bit, renovating one space, one of the storefronts, another when we came back from grad school, bought this building. It was just really making an impact strategically, bit by bit. We wanted to do the whole thing all at once, but people didn’t think that we were competent to pull that off. … It just took a long time to convince people that this could actually happen. It was a long time, I wish we could have done it sooner.
MP: Did COVID change anything for you guys?
RC: What COVID did was make us be very intentional about our workspaces, and so we could be eight feet apart, and this is how we walk through the space, so wayfinding. It just got us to be more intentional and it got us to be “to-scale” in the right way. We paused some classes, we didn’t lay anybody off, so we kept everybody on. We thought that was gonna be important because with the uprising and with COVID, people were mentally kind of shook in a way. We wanted to bring some consistency. I think being able to bring some consistency in the form of jobs and things like that helped people through those times. … I don’t wanna say that it hurt us, it just got us to be more intentional about what we do. I think the uprising probably had a larger impact.
MP: In what way?
RC: People who didn’t know that we existed began to know that we exist. For some reason it just didn’t click that the equity thing matters. When you see people do developments all over the city, nobody really thinks that there’s any brown people behind this design of the development, the owning of the development or any of that. So, it’s important to have a diverse economy that kinda rises all boats. It had people think a little about that in a different way, like we need to invest in institutions so everybody can have buildings, business, start-up capital if they have good ideas, access to things that were very gated. If you made an invention or if you created a product, how can you get that into a Target or a Best Buy? The uprising kind of opened up some of those doors and lifted the veil off the mystery. … I think it just kinda turned the light on, in a way, which I think is good. We’re gonna see what happens. … I’m optimistic and I’m excited that this next generation is really, really moving that needle towards social justice and equity stuff that I’ve never seen before.
MP: How does it feel now that you’ve actually broken ground?
RC: It feels really liberating, and like we’re gonna be able to leave something for this next group of creatives that they can leverage into something beyond what we envisioned. I think it feels good. It’s a little nerve wracking too, in order to finance things of this scale. … With the good feeling, I also feel a little bit of trepidation. Things can’t go wrong because all of this is at stake. I am happy and also a little bit nervous at the same time.
MP: What are you most looking forward to with the new building?
RC: I am looking forward to creating more pipelines to manufacturing, innovation, human-centered design, and art education workforce development. We can employ more people, we can train more people, we can get more people into that STEM pipeline and the entrepreneurial pipeline. Right now we can’t do that because we don’t have the space to house the [equipment], so that we can show people what we actually do. That’s what I’m looking forward to, for it to be a robust manufacturing and talent hub right here on Emerson and Broadway, that hopefully we can replicate in other states or countries. That is the goal!