Neighbors: one of Broadway's brightest spots

Married couple Roger and DeAnna Cummings, who founded Juxtaposition Arts in 1995, stand on the organization’s newly vacant lot at Emerson and Broadway.  Photo by David Pierini; Design by D'Angelo Raymond

Married couple Roger and DeAnna Cummings, who founded Juxtaposition Arts in 1995, stand on the organization’s newly vacant lot at Emerson and Broadway. Photo by David Pierini; Design by D'Angelo Raymond

By Kenzie O'Keefe | Editor

DeAnna Cummings graduated at the bottom of her class at South High. Her husband Roger didn’t finish high school until he got his GED in his 20s, but their lack of resonance with traditional education hasn’t stopped them from becoming nationally recognized for their ability to train teens to be successful in life through the arts.

Now two decades and two Harvard fellowships later, the co-founders of Juxtaposition Arts lead the organization’s four social enterprises, which instill entrepreneurial skills in young people while teaching them graphic design, screenprinting and fashion design, environmental design, and contemporary art and public art. 

In April they spoke with North News about their lifelong commitment to teaching teens to know their worth and reach their potential, and their plans for JXTA's campus expansion on West Broadway, which has seen millions of dollars in investments since they moved to the corridor.

What is Juxtaposition Arts’ origin story? Roger: It was started by three people – myself, my wife, and our friend, Peyton Russell, in 1995. It began in Sumner Olsen Public Housing as a program of what is now The Link. We showed people how to make art. It was an extension of what we had done in high school – designing and printing shirts, doing murals, and designing posters and fliers. 

How has JXTA evolved over the years? Roger: It evolved into us looking up and down Broadway for a place that would rent to us. The people who owned the building on the corner of Broadway and Emerson, Ed Gearty and Jim Ronning, said they would do a contract for deed with us because they were getting old and they wanted to leave a legacy. We became landlords – for the nail shop, for a clothing shop, for the apartments. We learned a lot. 

DeAnna: When we decided to buy the properties on Broadway, that was the turning point. This was going to be a real institution and our life’s work. 

Roger: It’s very rare that you see people of color building an art institution. That’s just not happening pretty much anywhere in the country at this scale.

You recently demolished that building on West Broadway and Emerson because of structural issues that would have cost half a million dollars to fix. Roger: That building was never the best. As early as 2002, there were signs of structural problems. We’ve had structural engineers and architects come in to help us think about how to rehab it. Each time they told us it was falling apart. Since last spring, the city inspector began fining us because the building was a safety hazard. Until we fixed it, the fines would double.

DeAnna: When we made the decision that were going to have to tear down the building, we were aware of the fact that a vacant lot on a major commercial corridor could potentially be an eyesore and a drain on the avenue. We started asking ourselves how we could use this decision as an opportunity to create something that’s additive to the corridor and as a place where we vision together about what might be possible in the future.

Operations continue at Juxtaposition Arts despite construction happening on its campus.  Photo by David Pierini

Operations continue at Juxtaposition Arts despite construction happening on its campus. Photo by David Pierini

So you decided to build an art plaza. Tell us about that. Roger: We’re calling it a skate-able art park. There are more young people in this general area than any other place in the state. There should be amenities for young people, and I believe this is one of those things. There will be illuminated benches and sculptural elements and places that are friendly to skate. We want to key in on the assets of North Minneapolis – youth, energy, movement, and things like that.

The art plaza will be a temporary structure, right? How does it fit into your long-term master plan? DeAnna: I think of it as semi-permanent. The lot will be cleared with sod by the end of the month. It’ll be a field. By FLOW this July, the pop up park will be in place. By FLOW 2019, a more permanent, semi-permanent park plaza will be installed. That’ll be in place for at least three years, and we can see elements of the art plaza remaining beyond.

How can the community learn more and support you in this next step? DeAnna: Come to our open house on May 31st. 2:30-4:30pm at 1108 W Broadway Ave. We’re going to make the biggest announcement in the history of the organization, and we want to share it with you. 

Roger: You can support us by hiring our young people to do their logos, graphic design, and environmental design work.

JXTA teaches artistic skills, but there’s also a practical, entrepreneurial element to what you do. You’re teaching young artists how to make a living doing art. Why is that a focus? Roger: DeAnna and I each got fellowships at Harvard in 2008. That’s when we began to be less about the 20th century MFA or BFA artist who is in their studio and more about the expanded practice of artistic production for the 21st century artist who impacts people across the street and down the block. Now it’s like “how can we break bread and create opportunity for other people and bring people along so everybody eats?” That’s important to us. We employ 70 youth annually plus 22 working artists. Young people are learning college level stuff and getting contracts to do work that professional firms are doing. At Harvard we learned about the tipping point in families’ economies. We structure our wages so young people can make a real difference in their households. That’s independent livelihood. That’s what’s America is based on. We have a lot of potential with the 3Ms, Cargills, General Millses, and Targets where young people can be pipelined into longer careers with 401Ks and things like that.

Ashley Koudou (left), an MCAD senior, leads a branding and identity workshop for JXTA youth apprentices with Textiles and Screen Printing Lab lead, Saulaman Schlegel.  Photo by David Pierini

Ashley Koudou (left), an MCAD senior, leads a branding and identity workshop for JXTA youth apprentices with Textiles and Screen Printing Lab lead, Saulaman Schlegel. Photo by David Pierini

You’re also focused on teaching young people general skills that contribute to lifelong success. Who are some of your program alums who embody these teachings? DeAnna: Ward 5 Council Member Jeremiah Ellison. Ben Janssens who owns Sign Minds. Houston White of HWMR. Davu Seru, a professor at Hamline. Drew Peterson who works here at JXTA and has a thriving and growing practice as a contemporary artist. Kelsey Lee Carol who does jewelry making. Herbert Johnson, an actor and dancer. They are all making their ways in the creative world, but we also have alumni who are teachers, nurses, and EMTs. Our goal isn’t that every young person that is part of our programming goes on to be a famous artist somewhere. We want kids to leave here with tools to go where they are trying to go in life. The skills that kids get through their involvement in the arts translate like nothing else. It’s amazing to remember where they were at when they started at JXTA and where they are when they leave here. The level of belief in their ability to do anything is amazing; it’s beautiful, and it’s why we do the work.

Why have you made your home on West Broadway and why do you continue to deepen your investment on this busy corridor? DeAnna: This is the heart and soul of the African American community and is one of the most diverse communities in Minneapolis. This is the community where we were created to be a part of and we’ve never considered leaving. North Minneapolis has an abundant population of young people and kids of color that are still in some ways not fully recognized as the community assets that they really are. When we started we didn’t have a vision that was ten years out, we were just doing a program because there weren’t programs. We were teaching art as a way to monetize your worth and production. Being on Broadway made perfect sense.

Kenzie O'Keefe