Art Talk with DeAnna Cummings
DeAnna Cummings. Photo by Michele Spaise
At Juxtaposition Arts, creativity isn’t just seen as a form of expression: it’s considered an agent of change. Based in North Minneapolis, one of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, the organization provides visual arts literacy training and design-based jobs for local youth. This approach not only empowers the next generation of creative workers, but the output from these jobs—murals, graphic design, art installations, clothing—is in turn cultivating creative economy in a culture-starved area.
Founded in 1995 by DeAnna Cummings, her husband Roger, and Peyton Scott Russell, JXTA, as it is often called, is currently in the midst of an $8.2 million, six-year expansion. When the expansion is completed, it is hoped the organization will reach some 4,000 youth each year. I spoke with DeAnna Cummings about the importance of art in her own life, in her neighborhood, and in achieving a balanced, healthy economy.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
CUMMINGS: My version of the artist’s life is about having enough time and good physical space where I have room and time to think. Everybody likes to be paid for their labor. Artists are being paid for their creative labor, but it’s labor nonetheless. Being paid well is really great, and I think that facilitates the artist’s life: not to have to worry and stress over financial matters, which takes away from your ability to do good work.
NEA: What is your earliest memory of experiencing/engaging with the arts?
CUMMINGS: I come from a family of six [children], and art was a really natural part of our life. I would say not art with a capital “A,” but music and singing and doing plays with my cousins for our parents. My oldest brother was in a band, and sometimes when he would practice he would assign us roles. So somebody would take lead vocals, and somebody would play bass, and we’d do little concerts. I didn’t really think about art as separate. We drew and we told stories and we sang. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t really go to museums or plays unless it was with our school.
NEA: It sounds like you had a very creative childhood.
CUMMINGS: Yes, out of necessity though. I had a bit of a hard childhood, but I think creativity and expression were ways to imagine outside of whatever spaces we might have found ourselves in. At the same time, it was a very rich and creative and imaginative childhood, and a lot of fun.
NEA: What was the inspiration for starting Juxtaposition?
CUMMINGS: We started JXTA in a lot of ways to be the kind of place that we wished we could participate in. My husband and I met in high school. Along with our third partner, we were entrepreneurial from a young age. We started businesses while we were still in high school, and a number of creative ventures. Before we started JXTA, [Roger and I] had a handmade greeting card business. Back in high school, he’d take backdrops and hang them at festivals and events…and would sell Polaroid pictures to the attendees who wanted to capture the moment in front of the backdrop. Or jean jackets that were commissioned by friends, or do party flyers for an event. So in a lot of ways, that was a part of founding JXTA—our early years.
The other inspiration for starting JXTA is just the recognition that we got our legs under us—each of us founders—through our involvement in the arts. I was academically identified as gifted and talented. At the same time, I struggled in high school, one reason being that I recognized relatively early on that I was more inspired and was at my highest potential when I was doing things actively, as opposed to just reading about them and hearing lectures about it and so on. That educational experience continued for me into my undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota. Roger and Peyton had the very same experience. Each of us can tell you about educational experiences that were our most successful during our high school and college years, and they all involved teachers and professors who created a learning environment that was hands-on and active. So JXTA was really about providing space in our community in North Minneapolis where kids could have hands-on experiences with creative expression and the arts as practice for real success and failure, which I think prepares young people for life in a way that a focus on core academic stuff doesn’t do.
NEA: Do you think the arts have a unique ability to prepare individuals for failure and success?
CUMMINGS: I do, and lots of research supports that. When you’re making a painting by yourself, hundreds of times during that process what you were going to do doesn’t work. The balance is off or the color’s not right, so you change direction. When you’re working with a group, then you have this experience of how do I work with this person who has a different approach, who has a different style or aesthetic? How do I get my voice and my ideas and what I have to offer into this process and respect the [other] person? Those are the same things that we experience in life.
Away from the theoretical and philosophical, to get a series of works done for an exhibit, I have to work on these pieces every day for this amount of time, and I have to do it until it gets done. So you’re also learning about responsibility, and showing up, and giving what you have to give.
NEA: How do you see the arts as affecting social change?
CUMMINGS: You can research and study and that’s important. But I think art is providing an accessible medium for a large number of people across race and class and age and all kinds of boundaries to be together and really work on identifying and solving tough challenges together. That’s at the community level. But I think arts also have a unique ability to articulate complex ideas and systems. A lot of what we’re faced with today regarding various social challenges are that the issues appear to be so complex. For the average person, it’s challenging to get your mind around what you can do about it, or how you can truly have an impact or make a difference. I think that arts and culture are powerful tools to make visible and clear things that can often seem really complicated and impossible.
NEA: Juxtaposition started in 1995. How has the North Side community changed in that time? How do you hope Juxtaposition has contributed to any positive changes that you’ve seen?
CUMMINGS: Certainly there’s been change since we started in ‘95. When we moved in, there were vacant buildings on both sides of our building and across the street. In 2006, one of the major vacancies, which was owned by the city, was redeveloped and transformed into a bank and credit union, a coffee shop, and an adult jobs training facility. In 2009, the vacant building to the north was purchased by a non-profit housing developer. Looking up and down, there’s development happening on virtually every block.
There are lots of pieces at play; JXTA had a little bit to do with that. Before we moved in, our entire block was basically vacant. The corner was inactive, lifeless, a little bit dangerous even. When we renovated our building and opened up the windows and had art inside and events every other month that spilled out into the street, that was activating the street, that was activating the block, and bringing presence and people and energy. I think that’s what happens when artists move in; the neighborhood suddenly becomes attractive. There’s activity and exuberance and color. Then people are suddenly looking at the other vacant building and saying, “Actually, that building has some potential, we think we could make something out of that.” There’s artwork up and down the street now, lots of it created by young people in our program, but beyond that, there are murals that were painted by North Side artists not connected with our organization, there are a few new works of large-scale commissions this year by developers and installed by local artists. Our local Area Chamber of Commerce has a program called the Art Façade Improvement Program, where they make grants to businesses to enable them to improve their facades in partnership with artists. Our historical local high school, North High School, is reopening this year as the North High Art and Technology Magnet School. So I think there’s a greater sense of awareness about the power of art and culture, and that’s the case in the broader world too.
NEA: Why do you think creative economy is so important to a city’s well-being?
CUMMINGS: I think creative industries are an important part of a city’s diverse economy. One aspect of creative economy that I think is really important is locally-rooted art and creativity. When people in a local community have the opportunity to participate, have the opportunity to benefit economically, have the opportunity to help shape institutions and organizations and businesses, they have a stake in that place and a stake in the future of that place.
We employ young people in five creative enterprises where they’re making real products and services for real customers. They’re doing screen printing and tote bags and design work and murals. The value of that work—in addition to the kids earning a living—is that it’s bringing back to our local community and our city people [who] build things and make things and do something that they can sell to make a living. Most of the jobs available to teenagers in this neighborhood are jobs where young people are serving fast food or selling sneakers at a retail shop or service industry jobs. Locally-rooted, creative endeavors can work in disadvantaged communities as well as more affluent communities, [and] provide places for the local community to spend their disposable income.
Diversity is critical in all living systems. You need diverse sources to sustain and support your economy, [and] you need diverse kinds of businesses located in a particular area. I think the creative economy as a part of an overall economy is absolutely critical, and without it the overall city suffers.
NEA: What artistic tools could you not live without?
CUMMINGS: As an arts administrator, I have to work hard to make sure that I’m spending enough time in my artistic self because it’s not integrated into the natural cycle of my work. But some of the ways I do that include music. And I would say if there was one tool or mode of artistic expression that I could not live without it would be music, both listening with people or on my own at home, on my iPod, or while at work while going about my day. But I also do some painting and collage and I’ve done some theater. So I think just remembering to carve out time to be in artistic spaces is really important for me to live [and] to be balanced.