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Facing Failure: Juxtaposition Arts propels forward

DeAnna Cummings, the executive director of Juxtaposition Arts, used a setback as an opportunity to examine her organization’s communications and her leadership style.

Have you ever been told that you can’t or shouldn’t do something? How did you respond? Did you accept the feedback and choose to fold, or did you double down in your determination to accomplish that very task? Often in great success stories there is a leader who chose to persevere. A few months ago I was introduced to just such a person. In the face of harsh criticism and a failed capital campaign, Juxtaposition Arts was confronted with the decision to maintain its status quo or push forward to find a new solution.

 DeAnna Cummings, the executive director of Juxtaposition Arts, shared her story of setback and perseverance during a panel discussion at this year’sBushCONNECT event. She spoke with two other nonprofit executive directors on the role of failure in driving innovation (see event video). While each of their stories was unique, a common thread ran through all three organizations: They each saw occasional failure or setbacks as part of the process of innovating, and through that innovation they want to do better work – work that is relevant to the lives of their constituents and communities.

 DeAnna used the setback as an opportunity to examine her organization’s communications and her leadership style. It was also gave her a chance to reevaluate Juxtaposition’s goal around its capital campaign.

Now four years later DeAnna and her team have surpassed nearly every goal they’ve set and put previous setbacks behind them. This is the story of how DeAnna and Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) built a sustainable model for youth arts programming, and in the process strengthened their north Minneapolis community.

Q1. You’ve said there was little opportunity for aspiring artists in north Minneapolis when you started JXTA. Can you describe the scene back then?

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There were few organizations providing year-round opportunities for comprehensive engagement in the arts for youth.  In the 1990s when we started JXTA, after-school programs were starting to proliferate. People started realizing that the after-school hours were when young people were most likely to get into trouble. In response, lots of programs sprung up to keep kids busy and out of trouble. Most of these programs were the traditional tutoring classes — reading, writing, and math. 

Q2. The great line from the movie Field of Dreams is, “If you build it, they will come.” You barely finished building the first JXTA location and the community turnout forced you to immediately think about how to expand. What services helped you and your team make that first connection?

We’ve been in three physical locations since our founding, and each time the space was a major factor in determining what programming could be offered. In our first location we had 2,500 square feet of open warehouse studio space with high ceilings and an open floor plan. This space was perfectly suited to provide a comprehensive study and practice in fine arts. Our early program included four core components that we still use to frame our programs today: 

  1. Youth doing hands-on art making
  2. Verbal communication practice through art critique and interpretation
  3. The study of art history
  4. Monetization of the creative process and products by exhibiting and selling youth work.

We are still the only organization in the Twin Cities (that we know of) that offers year-round visual arts programming for young people as a pathway toward higher education and professional development. Our community members, specifically the young people, really embraced JXTA as they saw the results: young people graduating high school, going on to college, starting their own businesses, and being active, civically engaged adults. Ultimately it was word of mouth from participants, parents, partners, and investors that really helped propel the program forward in the early days. 

Q3. Your capital campaign to expand and redevelop your Emerson and West Broadway building failed almost before it started. Can you share your original plans and what happened?

When we acquired our main building at corner of Emerson and West Broadway in 2001 we purchased four buildings at the same time.  Our initial plan was to focus on one space at a time. We wanted to open up our gallery, workspace, and offices first, and then immediately move to rehab the other properties one at a time. We were successful in raising the money necessary to rehab the Emerson studio and our programming quickly expanded to fill the new space.

To accommodate the growth we expanded to year-round programming. This required bringing on more artists and staff, so our budget grew. But our first space was too small, and we found that continually turning the space over from an art studio, to a board meeting room, and then to prep for a funder site visit was incredibly time consuming.

We started working with an architect and consultants on a feasibility study for rehabbing our other buildings. The plan included the designs for the renovated buildings, the programs that would be offered, and the fundraising that would be required.

Part of the feasibility study included talking to current and potential investors about our plans. The consultant found that some funders had serious questions about JXTA’s need to have more space and our ability to raise the kind of money we needed to do the level of campaign we proposed.

It became clear to me that nobody really cared about the fact that JXTA needed more space. What they wanted to hear about was what our youth, artists, and community needed, and how JXTA was going to meet those needs and opportunities. Ultimately the work isn’t about JXTA; it’s about the young people, the residents, the artists, and the audience. I was reminded that as a nonprofit organization we only exist and people only care about what we do as it relates to the benefit and impact we’re having with people.

With the findings of the feasibility study, we struggled to get traction in raising additional support to expand into our other spaces. So we decided to approach our goal in a different way and started utilizing our other spaces in their current states. We started talking about our programs more from a perspective of opportunity for people and community needs, and ensured that we were purposefully playing to our strengths. Creating a teen and artist-staffed screen-printing production studio and retail shop is one example of this process.

Instead of suggesting that we needed to redesign buildings because “JXTA needs more space,” we talked about how could we make the most of the space we had and do more to activate the talents of local youth. This shift positioned our work in the arts as an “economic and social capital drive” in our community and investors began to see the impact we were having with young people and our broader neighborhood. After this shift our supporters became more excited to help fund our capital development projects. 

Q4. How did that setback impact you and your team? Was there a repercussion from your board and funders?

Our morale took a temporary hit as our timing slowed. Four years ago when we created our strategic plan we fully intended to have a new, state of the art four-story building on the corner of Emerson and West Broadway. We haven’t accomplished that yet.

But these setbacks were not so much failures as learning experiences. They forced us to step back and examine our goal. We had to ask ourselves what we were really after. Was the goal “a state of the art four-story building” or was it what we thought that building could help us accomplish? We wanted to employ more young people. We wanted to establish north Minneapolis as a source of young creative talent for the region. We wanted to activate a vibrant street presence and spur economic development.

Once we rearticulated the goal in terms of people, the buildings just became containers for these goals. Today, we’ve accomplished all of our goals.  Although we lost one funder after a mutually agreed upon parting of ways, other long-time funders started investing even more. We also have dozens of new local and national funders, customers, clients, and partners.


Q5.  Can you talk more about how you have used failure, specifically public failure, as a great motivator?

I don’t really see setbacks as failure. Over my career I have learned to take the time to reflect on setbacks and discover what I can learn from them. Sometimes it requires that we find new ways to achieve a goal, and in other cases it might require us to rethink our goal.

When we launched our capital campaign there were two individuals from a local family foundation who told me they were concerned about JXTA’s capacity and our ability to accomplish our planned capital campaign.

They openly shared their doubts about me and said, “DeAnna, you are extended beyond your talents.” Later that evening I thought about that discussion and how I should have responded. I wish I had challenged them by saying: “You don’t know my talents, you don’t know me, and you don’t know how far my talents reach.” It was after that episode that I made up my mind to address their concerns and ultimately prove them wrong.

I examined how both the organization and I were perceived from the vantage point of these stakeholders. For example, I knew that we needed to shore up our communications capacity. We needed to be more consistent in how we listened and shared our current work and future plans. We needed to be more transparent with our constituents, partners, and investors. Part of what is necessary to take an organization to the next level is to bring people along on the journey so that they are walking with you. In this way the work and the support is more sustainable.


Q6.  With all of JXTA’s recent accomplishments it seems like you and your organization have emerged from this experience stronger than before. Looking back, would you agree?

Absolutely! In 2004 we engaged with about 100 youth through our programs in a 2,500 square foot space. In 2010 we had 500 youth participating at JXTA as we launched our new strategic plan that included a multi-million dollar capital campaign and the creation of JXTALab, a teen-staffed design studio.

Today, even though our capital campaign has been delayed, we work with over 1,000 youth annually and employ 60 youth in year-round, part-time jobs. Our space devoted to youth creative genius and enterprise now encompasses five buildings and has grown from 2,500 square feet to 20,000 square feet. We are on our way to becoming the largest employer of youth artists in the Twin Cities. Our growing presence in the neighborhood has also helped spur more than $74 million in development by public and private investors along the 2.2 miles of West Broadway Avenue.

By every measure we have found success by moving beyond our failed capital campaign.


 Q7. What advice would you give other nonprofits that are trying to create a culture of innovation within their organizations?

Honestly, we were never trying to create a culture of innovation and we still aren’t.  Our goal is to do work that matters and that truly has impact with people.  We wanted to do that work in a way that taps into and utilizes the best that everyone has to offer — the young people, the artists, and ourselves as leaders.  By working from that perspective we have found a formula that has enabled us to be innovative. Some advice:

  1. Stay in a constant feedback loop with yourself and your team. The goal is to know yourself as a leader and to know the people you work with — your colleagues, collaborators, and constituents.  When you have a good sense of everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, concerns, and visions for the future, you can better steer the ship. Then you can bring everyone’s skills, experiences, and geniuses to bear in the work you are doing. The result is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  2. There is no magic formula for innovation. I think it’s all about the culture of your business that is reflected in your processes. If you want to nurture a culture of innovation you have to support nimbleness, a culture of trying new things, and a team that is accountable to each other and your constituents.
  3. Innovation by definition looks different than the things that have been tried before. That means accomplishing innovation means you will do things that are unproven, and you’ll have to make the case that your approach has promise and potential.
  4. Nurture a work environment that is joyful and fun. Innovation is hard work. It is stressful. It requires us to suspend judgment and move away from what is known and safe. For many this can be a scary space. For people to thrive in this environment it requires a counterbalance of culture that is ripe with inspiration, joy, and trust. My goals in this regard are simple: I want everyone at JXTA to feel like they have the best job in the world, to know that we have each other’s backs, and to feel wonder and pride at what we do together. It’s a good day when we’re all laughing our heads off when we come to work.

DeAnna and her team have done exactly what they set out to do — create a joyful, sustainable model for arts education and employment in their north Minneapolis neighborhood. They have taken several twists and turns along the way, but no one can question their talents or how far they can reach.  There are many nonprofits and for-profits that would be envious of the culture of innovation they have created.

You can find more information about Juxtaposition Arts on their website at You can also connect with DeAnna Cummings via LinkedIn,Twitter, or through email at


Matt Hunt is the CEO and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm Stanford & Griggs. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations. You can follow Matt on his blog and Twitter@huntm.

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