As Roger Cummings talks about the inspiration for Juxtaposition Arts — artistic expression and entrepreneurial learning for young people — a young man springs down the stairs, his hands stuffed firmly in his jacket pockets. (It’s a blustery day, and the gallery’s concrete floors seem to radiate chill.)
“He’s been with us since the very beginning,” Roger says, nodding toward the young man, who now teaches at Juxtaposition. “He’s in his 20s now.”
Roger and DeAnna Cummings know something about beginnings and commitment. The couple, high-school sweethearts who grew up in Minneapolis involved in arts and community building, started Juxtaposition Arts 15 years ago in an effort to give young people an opportunity to explore their artistic selves.
“In many ways, when we started this we wanted to create something that we would have loved to have had a connection to as kids,” says DeAnna. “We wanted to give kids an opportunity to connect to their power, to explore who they are through artistic expression.”
Fifteen years later, the North Side arts center, fired up by hip-hop music and hip-hop expression, is experiencing another growth spurt. The small gallery, learning center, and community arts space is stretching out its arms to plan a 20,000-square-foot facility that will include a mixed-use commercial center and artist co-op space on West Broadway; a textile design center; and a gallery and retail space where artists will serve local businesses’ need for environmental design, graphic design, photography, and more.
A Neighborhood Place
Outside of the “Juxta” gallery, the students’ mural art decorates a once-blighted cityscape. Aerosol artists, some of whom are getting national recognition, have adorned buildings and trashcans with vivid images that shout neon-colored hope on days when clouds hang dark and heavy. And on the busy street, spray-painted sidewalk poems and vows offer challenges to passerby: “We pledge to say no to gangs.” “We pledge to stand up for a better future.” “We pledge to work through our differences together.”
In any given year, Juxtaposition serves about 650 aspiring young artists (and more than a thousand more through its in-school and community events and programs), working with them to teach and explore textile art, graphic design, photography, and aerosol art. In fact, thanks to its expertise and now-worldwide recognition in aerosol art, Juxtaposition has experienced a welcome ascent in the local community and the art world.
Since its humble beginnings, Juxta has has helped launch the careers of significant artists like Ernest Bryant III, a multi-media artist who started at Juxta in 1996, at age 15, and went on to be named one of City Pages’ Artists of the Year in 2008 (chosen by Walker Art Center curator Doryun Chong). Another youth, Bobby Nathanial Wilson, came to Juxta in 2002, when he was homeless and 16. He now serves as a lead teacher in Juxta’s mural and graphics program and was recently hired as a graphic designer for Buffalo Nickel Creative, a Saint Paul marketing firm and design studio.
‘The Bedrock of Youth Culture’
For DeAnna, youth engagement isn’t only about immediate needs — it’s about providing future promise and growth for the entire city. As much as 50 percent of the North Side community is under the age of 21, according to some census estimates. “An abundant population of youth is the greatest asset this community has,” DeAnna says. “Minneapolis is consistently in the Top 10 for artists, design firms, theater. African-American youths are the bedrock of youth culture; when we ignore them, the arts community suffers, and the entire community suffers.”
Of course, DeAnna and Roger also focus on how they can benefit and unite their particular part of the wider city, the North Side community. Juxta often gets requests from community members for its artists to create designs for logos or T-shirts, but because the center is a small shop whose artists are still developing their talents, the askers can’t always be accommodated. Recently, for example, a man whose nephew had been killed in a shooting asked if the artists could design matching T-shirts that the family could wear at the funeral. But Juxta just didn’t have enough space or assets to help him.
DeAnna and Roger believe the in-progress space will be an opportunity to give back to people like the uncle, to give back to the larger community, and to employ 100 artists annually in part-time hands-on art and design jobs.
“We want to help [the students] tap into their potential and make a career out of it,” Roger says. “Even if they don’t follow that path, mural arts, graphic design, environmental design, and other arts can provide a supplemental income and teach them to become creative problem solvers.”
In 2001, when Juxta started to get recognized for its aerosol arts and murals, there was an influx of youth from outside of the North Side community. While Roger and DeAnna were excited to serve passionate young people, they were worried that their mission — to serve North Side youth — was becoming compromised.
“We know that community development comes from activating [a] proven model of participatory arts and culture,” DeAnna says. “And we really wanted to focus on tapping into that — for the young people, and for the people who live here now.”
In 2008, as Juxta was continuing to grow and gain national attention, Roger and Deanna went on sabbatical in an effort to learn how to strategically position the arts organization for positive, organic growth in the community. DeAnna attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, while Roger studied design at Harvard. The two came away with new ideas.
“We realized that we’d been coming at it from the wrong place,” DeAnna says. “We were thinking, ‘What can we do with these buildings to serve the youth?’ And now we are thinking, ‘What are the ways we can work with them to be an agent for positive change in the community?'”
The end result includes plans for that $8.2-million expansion, the final phase of which, the gallery and retail space, is set to be complete in 2015.
“We know it’s a big job,” DeAnna says. “But ultimately, we believe that artistic expression is an important value and benefit of a vibrant and robust cultural economy. Really it comes down to the day-to-day, how we’re going to sustain ourselves as individuals and as a planet,” DeAnna says. “And we believe arts and culture are as critical as anything else.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.