An innovative arts and design enterprise helps creative young people in North Minneapolis pursue futures in art, design, and architecture

By Amy Goetzman

Here and there, in parks, on walls, and inside buildings, the work of a vividly, distinctively Minneapolis school of design adds color and emotion to the city. There’s the retro-postcard “Welcome to North Minneapolis” mural on Broadway Avenue—you can’t miss it. Another mural, lavish and five stories tall, is secreted away in a stairwell in the downtown Le Méridien Chambers Hotel. At the St. Satoko Pocket Park on Emerson Avenue, a bamboo arbor, a sculpture grove, and planters stake out a tiny sanctuary in the city. And then there are the many logos and graphics in motion on T-shirts and tote bags. It’s all the work of Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), and the secret to this fine, up-to-the-second stylish design is that it’s dreamed up and executed by young people.

“There is so much raw genius in the young people of North Minneapolis,” says JXTA cofounder and CEO DeAnna Cummings. “The notion that only well-trained professionals can do art is simply wrong.” Part design school, part social-enterprise business, and part after-school activity, this wholly unique arts organization has been changing futures on Emerson and Broadway since 1995. That’s when three artists decided the youth of North Minneapolis needed something to do with their creative energy. Why not do art?

DeAnna Cummings, husband Roger Cummings, and friend Peyton Russell established the venture as an after-school studio-arts program in which professional artists would guide and train young people. Over the next two decades, the program evolved into a professional-level arts school and an apprenticeship program called JXTA Labs, which employs local artists, architects, and designers as well as the emerging creatives they lead. The nonprofit expanded to four buildings, and today JXTA serves 1,500 young people annually. It has enhanced educations, launched careers, provided studio space and incomes, opened eyes in the community, and enriched businesses with art. It has helped revitalize the city. Undoubtedly, it has saved lives.

“We see people come in all the time who have a natural gift right out of the gate, and they ultimately leave a mark on this organization and help make it different and better than it was before,” says the CEO. All that the incoming talent needs is a little training. The students all start out in Visual Art Literacy Training (VALT); many move on to a JXTA Lab apprenticeship (or two). Along the way, they receive college-level instruction in fine art, scale and ratio, urban planning, landscape architecture, marketing, and production—and conducting oneself like a pro.

“We emphasize consistency, competency, and deportment—the things people will look for in the business community,” says Roger Cummings, JXTA’s chief cultural producer. “Individual talent is well and fine. We see it every day. We help them learn to work as part of a diverse cohort of people who are more important and more effective together than alone.”

In recent years, the organization has continued to grow, but in early 2018 the deteriorating headquarters building on the northwest corner of Emerson and Broadway had to be demolished to avoid escalating fines from the city. For now, JXTA does more in less space. A capital campaign is raising funds to build a new headquarters—with design input from its students, of course (see sidebar on page 37). In the meantime, the now-empty lot will be transformed into a skate-able art plaza.

Sam Ero-Phillips, Assoc. AIA, came to JXTA as a young person in 2007 and has never been able to quit it. After taking classes, he volunteered and taught there while pursuing architecture and art degrees at the University of Minnesota. He left Minnesota twice, getting his graduate degree in Chicago and traveling to Nigeria as a Fulbright scholar, but he always came back to JXTA. He’s led studio-arts labs while working at KKE Architects, 4RM+ULA (page 18),and now LSE Architects.

“This is that rare organization that is able to produce high-quality creative product and excel at community engagement,” says Ero-Phillips. “Companies come here looking for fresh ideas, and they hire us because they know from our track record that we deliver an exceptional product.”

By hiring JXTA, those clients, which include Lunds & Byerlys, the YMCA, and Dangerous Man Brewing Co., also help impact lives. When students see the apprentices working in art and design, it makes all manner of creative futures seem possible. Although the program remains firmly rooted in North Minneapolis, the young people hail from as far away as Eden Prairie and Stillwater. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, so the instructors might pivot during an art lesson to a crash course in how to prepare a portfolio or a college application, or how to stick with a high school that seems to only teach to the test.

“JXTA makes it hard not to work at JXTA. I find I truly love having a teaching component in my life, even though I’m now pursuing my architecture career,” says Ero-Phillips. “We do the kind of work that I loved doing in college—drawing, model making, discussing ideas. There’s something about working with these young people that just fills me up.”

JXTA recently launched a $14 million capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art facility at its current location. The new headquarters will continue the organization’s longstanding commitment to the equitable development of North Minneapolis, ensuring that young people have access to quality arts education and employment for generations to come. To learn more about the campaign or to donate, please contact JXTA development director Kevin Vollmers.