When Juxtaposition Arts CEO DeAnna Cummings is asked what the word “community” means to her, she laughs, recalling an arts leader in France who once said a very French thing to her.
“You Americans and ‘community,’ you’re always talking about ‘community this’ and ‘community that,’ ” she recalled. “That was two years ago, and I said, ‘I am never gonna use the term ‘the community’ again — it’s ridiculous, overused. But it’s hard.”
That’s because Juxtaposition Arts has become a revitalizing force for community on Minneapolis’ North Side. Cummings and her husband, Roger, co-founded the organization as an incubator for young urban artists, ages 12 to 21, where they can gain skills that are both empowering and entrepreneurial, and work with professional artists.
JXTA, as it’s called, has helped 3,000 children and young adults through its training programs. Currently it employs 77 young people a year, training them for future jobs in creative fields. Its alums include such noted artists as Drew Peterson, Leslie Barlow and Sam B. Ero-Phillips.
The organization runs on an entrepreneurial spirit that’s deeply embedded in its founders, who were not the “school smart” type.
The couple met at South High in Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, and have been together ever since.
“We skipped school a lot, we were suspended, we were tagging under bridges and stuff. But we also had entrepreneurial endeavors,” said DeAnna. “Roger and I had a greeting-card business.”
Roger Cummings, who is JXTA’s creative director, said his wife “was last in her graduating class and I dropped out of high school and got my GED. But we both ended up at Ivy Leagues.”
DeAnna got her master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, while Roger attended Harvard’s graduate school of design for advanced environmental studies. “I was a better student later in life than I would’ve been earlier in life,” he said.
Juxtaposition started as an after-school arts education program when the Cummings and co-founder Peyton Russell (who left the organization in 2006) were in their early 20s. Community members suggested they make it a permanent thing. So they bought two buildings at Emerson Avenue N. and W. Broadway in 2001.
At the time, many buildings there were abandoned and even condemned. Today it is a bustling business corridor, with $80 million in investments by the Minneapolis School District and businesses between 2004-09.
JXTA has become both a home to many artists and a community meeting center that is an anchor of the neighborhood’s annual summer arts festival, North Side Flow (scheduled July 26-28).
Kids can take classes through a program called VALT (Visual Art Literacy Training) that focuses on various creative tracks, including graphic design, screen printing, public art and environmental design.
From there, they can apply for a JXTALab paid-apprentice position, where they learn to work with clients ranging from corporate giants like 3M, Lunds and Target, or foster indie projects such as Black Girl Magic, a meme that turned into a T-shirt you can buy from Juxtaposition’s online shop.
The organization expanded, buying another building on Broadway in 2010. But in March, it was forced to tear down two of the buildings after bricks began falling off the facade.
This week, JXTA announced a four-year, $14 million capital campaign, the biggest fundraising effort in its history. It has already secured $1.3 million from the McKnight Foundation. It hopes to raise its operating budget to $5 million per year from the current $1.5 million.
And while the organization considers what it might build on that now-vacant lot, it’s planning a temporary art plaza/skate park there — a project being designed by youth in the JXTALab program, in collaboration with City of Skate, a coalition of skaters, parents and allies. It’s scheduled to be open by late summer or early fall, and completed by next summer.
For the dynamic entrepreneurial couple, it’s just another step in their vision.
The Cummings, who live in St. Paul, have two children. Nesra, 22, just graduated from Hampton University in Virginia and will do grad school at Kipp Academy in Atlanta, focusing on youth psychology. Changó, 21, has been in JXTA’s classes since he was a kid; he’s currently at Parsons School of Design in New York, focusing on environmental design and art. He recently designed a sculpture for the Hennepin County Hub building at Emerson Avenue, a big letter “N” for North.
“We are concerned with connecting, being of value to kids of color, kids interested in the arts, kids who have less access to the opportunities of our vibrant, cultural sector,” said DeAnna Cummings. “And that’s all kinds of kids: LGBTQ kids, kids that are first generation, immigrants, young people whose parents might be undocumented.”