Our Stories

A Home-Grown Arts Group Launches Youth Into the World of Design

When North Minneapolis natives DeAnna and Roger Cummings founded Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), they envisioned “a space where kids could have the opportunity to understand what they're good at.” More than two decades later (and with help from LISC), JXTA is a creative and entrepreneurial outlet for hundreds of young people, a force of community revitalization, and a flourishing anchor institution capable of leading a $14 million capital campaign to expand their impact into more neighborhoods, for more youth.

DeAnna and Roger Cummings met as Minneapolis teenagers, coming of age in step with 1980s hip hop culture on the city’s north side. They shared deep ties to their neighborhood, an urge to create, and a strong entrepreneurial drive. While Roger sprayed graffiti under bridges and designed t-shirts, jeans jackets and greeting cards, DeAnna managed their fledgling art business, handling marketing and inventory and was “always two or three steps ahead of me,” Roger recalls.

Sometimes they got into trouble for tagging lockers at school, even suspended. But these two were on to something.

In fact, the Cummings’ high school enterprise laid the ground for Juxtaposition Arts (aka JXTA), a youth arts organization they founded in 1995 and run today from a central intersection in North Minneapolis. Their goal was to create a space where “kids who were just like us—kids that are bound in by sitting in a classroom—could have the opportunity to understand what they’re good at through the arts.” That’s exactly what happened to Adrienne Doyle, who came to JXTA as a youth intern nearly a decade ago. During her first summer, she helped create a mural and planter boxes for a local pocket park. “I knew that I wanted to come back,” she recalls. “I knew that the work was powerful, that I enjoyed doing it. And that I could be successful doing it.”

DeAnna Cummings, CEO of Juxtaposition Arts, and Creative Director Roger Cummings, met as teenagers in North Minneapolis.
DeAnna Cummings, CEO of Juxtaposition Arts, and Creative Director Roger Cummings, met as teenagers in North Minneapolis.

Since its founding, JXTA has trained 3,000 area youth, ages 12 to 21, and currently employs 77 young people to create and sell art-and-design-related goods and services, including custom screen-printed apparel, environmental art installations and branding materials. JXTA alumnae have gone on to work in design for companies such as 3M and Target, or create their own indie labels (some available at JXTA's online shop). The organization is also at the heart of the neighborhood's summer arts festival, North Side FLOW.

Today, people come from as far as Tel Aviv to find out how the Cummingses, now long married, grew their nonprofit to its present stature as a neighborhood anchor institution, a revitalizing force in the community, and a model for other neighborhoods, serving more young people equally in need of a creative outlet and a community that values their contribution and entrepreneurial energy.

Part of this story is the growing cadre of supporters who have helped JXTA become what it is today. For the past 15 years, that has included LISC, whose Twin Cities office has long invested in housing and community facilities in North Minneapolis. LISC has unpacked every instrument in its toolkit to nurture JXTA, from grants, financing and technical assistance to gatherings with creative-placemaking peers. “LISC,” says DeAnna, “has been a consistent and critical player, something that, in a way, bound our work together.”

JXTA currently employs nearly 80 young people to produce arts-and-design products and services, like custom screen-printed apparel and posters.
JXTA currently employs nearly 80 young people to produce arts-and-design products and services, like custom screen-printed apparel and posters.

After JXTA lost the lease to its original studio arts space in the late 1990s, the organization spent several years in a nomadic mode, using neighborhood facades as canvases for the kids’ aerosol murals. But to really grow and serve their community, they needed new digs. Still, when DeAnna and Roger found three aging buildings in the neighborhood at an attractive price, they hesitated. They weren’t handy with leaky roofs or plumbing mishaps. And DeAnna figured that to fill the space with programming she’d have to quit her full-time job at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. With two children of their own to support, the couple found the proposition a little scary.

“Then we talked to funders and partners and other folks—that’s when our relationship with LISC began,” recalls DeAnna. LISC offered predevelopment dollars to renovate a small building at 2007 Emerson, in North Minneapolis. By the time it opened in 2004, Roger and DeAnna knew JXTA was not just a program but an institution—and their life’s work.

A few years later, the building abuzz with year-round arts activities, the Cummingses felt ready to launch a capital campaign to establish a state-of-the-art campus for JXTA. But a LISC-funded feasibility study wasn’t so optimistic. Supporters didn’t think JXTA could raise anything close to its $8 million goal. The problem had to do with what Roger calls “the c-word”—capacity. JXTA’s board was too small, its staffing and systems too limited, its profile, with no national funders on board, too low. “Had we jumped into a major capital campaign,” he says, “it probably would not have been successful, or it would have dragged out a long, long time.”

Instead, in 2008, the pair took a breather from the organization they’d tended nearly every day for thirteen years and headed to Harvard, where DeAnna earned a master’s of public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Roger was a Loeb fellow at the Graduate School of Design.

“LISC has been a consistent and critical player, something that, in a way, bound our work together.”
— DeAnna Cummings, Juxtaposition Arts Co-Founder and CEO

They returned to North Minneapolis infused with new energy, and soon rolled out JXTALab, the school’s production arm. The lab allows young artists and designers to earn wages while creating products from logos to custom apparel and, in the process, make neighborhood spaces and public art that reflect their study of design principles and their own experience of place. Their clients include Metro Transit and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. And the lab takes community engagement to a new level with ingenious, people-friendly street happenings.

JXTALab staff see local teenagers as a resource to their community, to the city’s creative sector hungry for fresh talent, and to local people who want a say in how their neighborhood looks and feels. For DeAnna and Roger, this approach reinforces the instincts they’ve felt since they were teenagers. “Youth culture, and kids of color in particular, are the source for so much of what is sold around the world as American culture,” DeAnna observes. “North Minneapolis has an abundant population of youth of color, African American kids, who are the creative geniuses, the source material.”

Since its founding, JXTA has trained 3000 youth, ages 12 to 21, in art and design. Many projects involve beautification and placemaking in North Minneapolis.

In the spring of 2017, bricks began coming loose and dropping from the JXTA building at the corner of Emerson and West Broadway, the one the Cummingses had always hoped to demolish and replace with a new headquarters. City officials offered two options: tear it down or begin a costly rehab, ASAP. In the decade since that disappointing feasibility study, JXTA has developed a more robust board, staff, and records systems, made headlines in the philanthropic world, and gained major support from national funders like the Kresge and Surdna foundations. It was time for that capital campaign and in May, JXTA launched a $14 million drive.

Even before the campaign officially kicked off, the McKnight Foundation donated $1.3 million to demolish the dilapidated building and seed JXTA’s capital expansion. The Cummingses credit LISC with helping catalyze these strong new partnerships. “We pushed hard locally for this project, and for national resources, which are competitive,” says Kate Speed, who heads lending for Twin Cities LISC. Meanwhile, LISC’s Michael Rubinger Community Fellowship allowed DeAnna to spend part of 2018 researching ways to extend JXTA’s impact even further--not by growing bigger in its current location, but by replicating the approach in other neighborhoods, including in South Minneapolis and Saint Paul. “The model works in part because it is very high-touch,” says DeAnna. “Every young person is known.”

That high-touch factor is a key to what brought Adrienne Doyle, the summer intern, back to work at JXTA as an adult, heading up tactical urbanism for the organization, and what inspired her to combine art making with a career in community development. “To a certain extent, I grew up in those buildings,” says Doyle of JXTA’s studios. And like many other JXTA alumnae, she is now committed to making sure that other young people have the opportunity to learn what they’re good at, too.