How the Twin Cities have changed – and not changed – for African American artists

Is life better for an African American artist today living in the Twin Cities than it was twenty or thirty years ago? The answer may surprise you.

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with a group of black artists who’ve all spent much of their careers here in the Twin Cities. There was some pretty powerful energy and talent in the room once all were assembled.

There was musician Douglas Ewart, painter Tacoumba Aiken, spoken word artist Louis Alemayehu, writer Carolyn Holbrook, storyteller Beverly Cottman and artist Seitu Jones. I asked them to share their thoughts on how the Twin Cities arts scene has changed, for good and for bad, and to talk about the particular challenges they face today.

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Seitu Jones

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Seitu Jones offered a compelling look back at the role of African American artists in Minnesota; he says he can trace his own family’s history here back to 1879.

Minnesota has always had this black presence, and then its had this black creative presence as a part of it, and so there have been artists who have come through here over the last hundred years that this place has spawned that have gone on to really change the world in different ways. Gordon Parks, Oscar Pettiford, all these folks that made these big contributions. The community has grown, through immigration, from folks from West Africa, from East Africa, refugees from Mississippi and from Detroit, all of these rust belt cities that have come and added to the mix. So this community really has grown and it’s really exciting to be a part of this community now.

Now, where it really hasn’t changed, is in the cultural institutions of the day. There are new galleries here, and there are some cultural institutions that have been around for a hundred years, that still really fundamentally haven’t changed. There still ain’t no Jackie Robinson that has come in as director or as president or as CEO of any one of those large cultural institutions. And while we’ve seen folks come and go in some of these institutions, we can still count on one hand the number of African American curators that have been at Walker Art Center, the number of black folks that have served as Artistic Directors of Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra or even heading a section there.

That still needs to change… and that really defies the fact that black folks have made such tremendous contributions to culture. Every time there’s been a big shift or innovation in popular culture here, you can point that to the black line somewhere.


Carolyn Holbrook

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Carolyn Holbrook agreed. Holbrook is the founder of SASE: The Write Place, a center dedicated to making the literary arts accessible to a diverse community. She says while many institutions seeking to increase the diversity of their staff focus their efforts on training new hires, they forget that they themselves also need training.

It’s been my experience and the experience of friends I’ve talked to as well, that when we’re hired for some of those positions, we’re not really accepted. We’re expected to come in and become a part of the culture or learn to be white. When we have a different idea that is very very real to us, it’s often met with criticism or just flatly rejected. I feel like the mentoring isn’t just for us, it’s for you as well – you need to learn that the way we think, act, do things is not wrong – it’s us.

But you know, basically, I know that I did and probably several others too just decided heck, if it ain’t out there for me I’m just going to have to build it! And so I did, and the spoken word community, the musicians, the people we’re mentoring now, they have that same mindset. It’s like “hey, the grants aren’t out there like they used to be, but we want to be artists and we’re going to do it!


Louis Alemayehu

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Spoken word artist and performer Louis Alemayehu has spent much of his career immersed in the Black Arts Movement, both in Chicago and in the Twin Cities. He adds that for many African Americans, art is about more than a piece of music or a painting on the wall – it’s about how you live in the world, and engage with a community.

When I came back to the Twin Cities I was really trying to help the community realize that our art was not a matter of creating commodities, but we were creating music, dance, paintings in order to lift up our consciousness and build community, so that we could be stronger functional people who could envision together a future that held all of us. I don’t think there’s an interest now in that kind of art, because I think we are really pushing the boundaries and telling truths that the mainstream folks did not want to hear.

The reality is that if we go back to our cultural root, we don’t have the paradigm of art the way the Western world does. We don’t put a price on it, it’s just there, everywhere: on the chair you’re sitting in, on the wall, in the spoon you eat with, and all that’s connected to an understanding of spirit. So it’s like two totally different paradigms and

we’re in this very… it’s an environment that’s really crazy-making because you’re trying to negotiate living in multiple worlds, and we’ve gotten very good at that, but it takes a lot of energy.


Beverly Cottman

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Beverly Cottman came to her art relatively late in life, after a career teaching science. As a storyteller she continues to teach, but in this case she’s teaching children to find the stories in their own lives. Cottman says while there are now more opportunities for artists to collaborate, she agrees with Alemayehu’s assessment:

I think that the larger dominant culture, institutions, don’t understand this, or if they do, they ignore it. And that becomes something that seems almost other-worldly, we become an invisible force. The general community appreciates how we’re working and the art we’re producing, but the people in power, the decision makers, don’t get it.

Ta-coumba Aiken

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Painter Ta-coumba Aiken recounted how sometimes this disconnect between institutions and artists can lead to misunderstandings or even conflict. When offered a solo show at a local institution, he said instead he’d like to invite five artist friends to join him. The museum curators were confused that he wouldn’t want to have the show to himself. Similarly, people question his creating murals with schoolchildren.

People go “why are you doing that with the community? You could be selling your art for such and such amount of money” and I say then where would I live? Meaning, where would my spirit live? I got it from the community, I’ll give it to the community. It’s the only way that I can survive. It’s really not about money – I need to have my spirit live and grow. I need to be able to look and see that sister Beverly over there is telling stories to kids that will grow up and buy art and listen to music because she’s taught them how to take their life and make it a story … to see how certain kinds of music will make you move and dance, or when you walk outside you see the trees waving and you think of Douglas and his music! Our whole life is an art form, our whole life, the way we breathe… and I don’t think the institutions understand that. I think they’re trying, but they’re not trying hard enough.


Douglas Ewart

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Musician and teacher Douglas Ewart says what concerns him most right now is the continuing influence of racism, from its thinly veiled presence in the current political debate, to its more subtle existence in cultural institutions:

We still the lack of value for life, and particularly black life, or native American life, I think about those two communities in particular and of course poor people in general. I think society reflects it when you have a country that can run a Sarah Palin, or you can run a Newt Gingrich, that’s indicative of some sickness to me. There’s a deep aspect of irrationality and of ignoring the realities in which we live. And adults are passing it down to their children.

You have to interrogate your own biases. I constantly evaluate my own conduct – that doesn’t mean that it’s erect in the way that I’d like it to be, but I think if you’re not constantly doing that as an individual and as an institution you can’t have substantive change. Curators and presenters eminate a lot of power because they tell you what art is valued, and if you don’t have diverse people making those decisions, then they have no power.