Juxtaposition Arts’ DeAnna Cummings on nonprofits and the arts in ‘09


Talk about a juxtaposition. It’s been hip hop meets Harvard this school year, ever since temporary Twin Cities ex-pats DeAnna and Roger Cummings went into willing exile with their two kids in Cambridge, Mass. The married pair left Juxtaposition Arts, their Minneapolis educational nonprofit, in trusted staff hands so they could spend a year at Harvard University on two fine fellowships.

DeAnna is working toward a mid-career master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government on a Bush Foundation fellowship; Roger is studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on a prestigious Loeb fellowship.

Prestigious stuff, in recognition of (if a long way from) the work they do to develop the potential and creativity of people on Minneapolis’ North Side, a neighborhood that’s home to many in the city’s African-American community, but where some see only poverty, crime and other problems. Juxtaposition Arts, founded in 1996, engages youth and others in the visual arts through classes, exhibitions, programs, projects, and special events.

During a break from school around New Year’s, the Minnesota Independent interviewed DeAnna Cummings by e-mail and phone. Here’s a mashup of ideas she expressed about what this year will hold for the arts and nonprofits.

Since you’ve been gone Minnesota voters passed a constitutional amendment to support the arts and the outdoors. What do you make of that?

To me that’s a classic and brilliant example of the arts getting outside of our safe places, getting off of the “arts pedestal,” getting down amongst regular people.

Minnesota’s support of the ecosystem of arts organizations we enjoy and our relatively thriving nonprofit industry is a model for the rest of the nation. Except for the fact that mid-size organizations seem to be dropping like flies over the past six months! Yikes!

How do you see the economy affecting your organization and others?

Things are hard all around, but for Juxta things aren’t much worse than they’ve ever been. We don’t have a mortgage payment; we’re doing fine. We’re counting our lucky stars we didn’t become a $750,000 [annual budget] organization. They’re much harder for folks to maintain.

Small to mid-sized groups have a bit of an advantage: We’re used to getting by. It’s a quality that poor people and small organizations do well intuitively. It’s the middle folks — $500,000 to $2 million — that are going to hurt the worst.

One of the double-edged swords of Minnesota’s vibrant philanthropic community is that nonprofits lean heavily on a handful of corporate and foundation donors. Arts organizations especially suffer from this lack of diversification in our donor base.

What can nonprofits do to survive?

Reconceptualizing who our allies, adversaries and “recruitables” are — reaching across the aisle — will be critical in 2009, especially for those of us who work in arts and cultural fields.

If we are going to survive and thrive in these tough economic times, we have to become adept at authentic collaboration. How we can share resources? Gone are the days of charity. We have to figure out how we get folks involved in our work because it is in their best interest.

So what are you up to at the Kennedy School?

I came as a person that founded and directed an arts organization because I’m interested in the idea that arts and culture can have a bigger role to play in policy, politics and public administration.

There’s not enough rigorous conversation and thinking about the role that arts and culture can play. When I start talking about arts with some people at the Kennedy School, they go blank. It’s hard for people to make a connection between arts and policy.

How do you see that connection? Can art make change happen that addresses social problems?

There is lots of change that needs to happen that’s more vertical kind of change, and arts can happen in a vertical way. Arts have the ability to connect people impacted by policy with policymakers.

An example is the Obama campaign’s branding. It wasn’t an extra and frivolous. It was critical and central. That was as important as anything else, the ability to brand Obama the candidate as attractive and sexy. It allowed young people to connect with his campaign in a different way — artists, graffiti artists. Had they just done the traditional bump sticker, there would have been a piece missing.

When do you come back?

We’ll be coming back to Minneapolis at the end of the summer/early fall to pick up the helm at Juxtaposition. We’re excited about launching a major development project that will transform what is currently the dilapidated 7,500-square-foot mixed-use property located next to our studio on the corner of West Broadway and Emerson Avenue North into a corona of culture, social enterprise and community development.

You’ve done a lot of work through Juxtaposition Arts to energize young people and the community of North Minneapolis — a part of town that’s often overlooked and bears more than its share of urban burdens. Any new ideas for North Minneapolis you’ll be bringing home with you from Harvard?

We as Americans and to some degree we as members of a globalized capitalist world falsely tend to view bigger as almost always better. Smallness is local, specific, nimble, better able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Some examples: Giovanni’s shrimp truck on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, which I had the pleasure of visiting in January 2006. “Street meat” kiosks and pushcart vendors in Boston. Old-order Amish who put a cap on how much any one business can earn.

Seeds for this idea came from listening to lectures by John Taylor Gatto. This is something that should be seriously discussed in North Minneapolis.