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JXTA + North Minneapolis Youth = Community and Futures

Photo by Phillip Hussong RedWire Creative for JXTA, courtesy of JXTA

Photo by Phillip Hussong RedWire Creative for JXTA, courtesy of JXTA

Juxtaposition's storefront, courtesy JXTA

Artist, courtesy JXTA

Photo by Phillip Hussong RedWire Creative for JXTA, courtesy of JXTA

It's a Wednesday afternoon in late winter and Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) is humming with activity. In the main building, teaching artist Drew Peterson sits with three students as they practice drawing skills as part of the Visual Art Literacy Training (VALT) program. Virdell Brown works one room over on a painting inspired by Malcolm X. Next door, in the Screenprinting Lab, a group of apprentices take turns operating the machines, making t-shirts, while up in the Graphic Design Lab another group of young people brainstorm new logo designs for a client, the soon-to-open Ancestry Books.

This is all in a day’s work for the North Minneapolis arts organization. Since 2010, JXTA has been providing paid opportunities for young people to gain skills in art and design. The organization developed this lab model with significant grant support from numerous foundations, notably the Bush Foundation, which granted JXTA $152,798, and the Surdna Foundation, who granted the organization $550,000 over a three-year period to take the business model to scale.

According to co-director DeAnna Cummings, JXTA’s lab model grew out of a simple question: Several years ago, staff took stock, asking themselves whether the community of North Minneapolis was better off than when the organization had been founded, 14 years before. On the one hand, JXTA could look to all of the individual young people whose lives were impacted positively, “but we also had to ask ourselves, ‘is the community better off?’ In some ways yes, in some ways no,” Cummings says.

In some ways, North Minneapolis of 2010 was actually worse off, particularly regarding the neighborhood’s employment rates and disparities in education and property values. JXTA was interested in thinking about what more the organization could do to address those concerns. Cummings says they all wondered: “What more can arts and culture do, and how can young people be engaged in significant ways?”

The JXTA lab model rolled out of this line of inquiry. The organization currently employs youth, 14 to 21 years old, in various creative jobs. These youth make an hourly wage, between minimum wage and $10 per hour, while being trained in areas like graphic design, contemporary art, screen-printing, environmental design, public art, and murals.

Helping “youthful creative genius” thrive

One of the goals of the program is to provide employment for young people. “Kids in North Minneapolis are underemployed and unemployed,” Cummings explains. “Our goal is that a young person who is employed year round makes at least $3,000 a year and contributes significantly to their household stability.”

In addition, the skills JXTA’s young workers are building will help them on their career path, even if they don’t end up going into the arts. “We know art and design develop habits and skills that are beneficial beyond art and design,” Cummings says.

Besides helping individual young people, JXTA aims to make a difference in the larger community of North Minneapolis by integrating the creative talent from that part of the city into the larger creative economy of the Twin Cities. To that end, the organization’s activities have included a number of creative placemaking projects; in fact, their currently one of 97 finalists for the prestigious ArtPlace grants scheduled to be announced this June.

From the beginning, JXTA’s work has rested on four pillars: creating opportunities for hands-on art making and learning; education in art history; exercise of critique and interpretation; exhibition and sales of work.

“We really want to be viewed and thought of as an organization where art and culture and design are happening,” Cummings says, “where youthful creative genius is thriving, where young people are being trained. JXTA wants to see North Minneapolis valued [by the metro at large] as an important community with many assets, filled with people who are significant and have something to contribute to the larger whole, versus [the perception that] North Minneapolis is a charity case or a drag on what would otherwise be a thriving and vibrant city,” Cummings says.

Art making, critical thinking, income generation

The program has made a huge difference for current apprentice Adrienne Doyle, who found confidence and gained skills at JXTA that led to creative jobs elsewhere around town, such as Works Progress, an arts support organization where she is a studio assistant. In addition, Doyle serves as a guard at the Walker Art Center and works at the University of Minnesota, while also taking classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Doyle began with JXTA in 2010 through Minneapolis’ Step-Up job program for teens, just after her graduation from South High School. While Doyle says she enjoyed art as a student at South, at JXTA the work was more community-centered: “We were being encouraged to reach out to other people and form relationships.”

After working on a mural during the summer, Doyle did several other apprenticeship sessions. In one of them, on environmental design, she had an opportunity to participate in the Bruner Loeb Forum, where she gave a presentation.

But the most defining JXTA experience, Doyle says, was a public art project she did with teaching artists Nate Young and Caroline Kent in the summer of 2011. For that project, JXTA apprentices researched contemporary African-American artists and presented their findings via an art cart they built and then transported along Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis. In particular, Doyle says the project introduced her to the work of Carrie Mae Weems, which, she says, “totally changed my perspective.”

Not long ago, Doyle wrote a piece published in Twin Cities Daily Planet in response to 9 Artists, a recent show at the Walker Art Center (where she also works), questioning the exhibition’s use of what she perceived to be racist imagery. “I don’t think I would have written that letter if I hadn’t been at JXTA,” Doyle says. “Being at JXTA helped me build relationships with people who are intellectual, and that really influenced me. I’ve become more critical in my thinking.”

Another apprentice, Virdell Brown, found out about JXTA through a friend; after participating in the VALT program, he became an apprentice in the Contemporary Art Lab. It’s his first job. “It feels pretty good,” he says. “It’s not a lot of kids that get to do their dream job. I happen to be one of them.

Besides nurturing young people, the lab model is designed to create revenue for the organization. Last year, the program brought in $167,000—one-tenth of JXTA’s total operating revenue. Eventually, the organization aims to increase those earnings so it can cover 50 percent of its annual budget through client work.

Among JXTA’s clientele are the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, which sought help designing the West Broadway Farmer’s Market, and the Neighborhood Funders Group, which came for assistance creating a 20-page program brochure. JXTA also makes t-shirts for “all kinds of clients,” Cummings says. It’s also helping to build bike racks and fabricate sculptures for some new housing developments—one owned by Common Bond Community on West Broadway, and another by the Ackerberg Group at Plymouth and 7th Street.

Making a living with creative work

JXTA was founded in 1995 by Roger and DeAnna Cummings, along with their high school friend, Peyton Russell. “The idea for JXTA came about as Roger and Peyton were teaching summer arts programs at a number of different organizations around the city,” Cummings recalls. “They found that the budget for those arts programs were often the first to be cut or scaled back. We said, Why don’t we start our own nonprofit?”

One of the first young people to start taking classes in the mid-nineties was Jeremiah Bey, who started with JXTA when he was just seven years old. His father met DeAnna Cummings while in Law School at the University of Minnesota, where Cummings was also taking classes.

“As a kid it was exciting to be in an environment where art was taken seriously,” Bey says. Before finding JXTA, he remembers trying out different programs, such as family days at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts or other children’s art classes and thinking, “I am not into this at all. This is a waste of my time.” JXTA was the only place where he had teachers who were black and brown.

In the early years, Bey remembers that sometimes JXTA didn’t know if its lease would be renewed: “There was always the tension of what was going to happen next.” Then, after ten years as renters, JXTA bought its building, which has provided a lot of stability. “Owning your own place is a liberating position,” he says. “The schedules became a little more reliable.”

Toward the end of his high school career, Bey acted as an assistant to more experienced artists. After he graduated from high school in 2008, Bey moved to Miami and tried college there for a year, but it “didn’t work out,” he says, “I was a bit directionless.”

Eventually, he found his way back to Minneapolis, where he started teaching at JXTA. “It was Roger and DeAnna’s attempt to pull me back into the loop,” he says. Currently, Bey is a roster artist; he does mural work for the organization in the warmer months. Last year, he worked with a team of artists creating a mural at Green Central elementary school, as well as other projects.

According to Bey, one of the most valuable things JXTA offers youth is a path toward making a living at creative work. “It teaches young artists how to create careers,” he says, “how to live sustainably off their art rather than succumbing to the myth of the starving artist.”

Last year, JXTA employed 50 youth throughout the year. By 2016, the organization hopes to employ 100. Fundamentally, JXTA works against the idea that young people can’t do much, the notion that young adulthood is an extension of childhood. “That’s just not reality,” Cummings says. “There are many more young people who have something of benefit to contribute to the work.”

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis based writer and theater artist. She is a regular contributor to TC Daily Planet, The Uptake and City Pages, and also works as a freelancer for Vita.mn and other publications. This article was originally published mnartists.org and is reprinted here with permission.
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