Dameun Strange has taken the helm of the growing Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association
The Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, the nearly 20-year-old nonprofit that organizes Art-A-Whirl and supports the area’s artists, has welcomed a new leader.
Dameun Strange, a Twin Cities-based community organizer and composer, assumed the position of NEMAA’s executive director in mid-October following Alejandra Pelinka’s leave earlier this year. Strange, set to be the association’s second full-time, long-term executive director and one of just two full-time staff, is now tasked with growing the more than 900-member artist collective after years of work to establish the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District and the local creative economy.
Brenda Kayzar, NEMAA’s interim executive director and president of its board, said they chose Strange for his ability to engage communities, which could help NEMAA reach its next audiences.
“Today, with the growth of the arts in Northeast, which is a big part of NEMAA’s success, we were really looking at wanting to bring somebody in that could benefit from all the work that [Pelinka] did in setting up every process for the institution, but do more engagement with the community,” she said. “The search process has really demonstrated to us how the awareness of NEMAA has grown, especially within the arts community.”
Strange comes to the association from the Bush Foundation where he worked as a philanthropy fellow. Prior to that, he has done community organizing work with ACORN, Minnesota United for All Families and Grassroots Solutions. Strange, who lives in St. Paul, has also been on the board of Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, Hopewell Music Cooperative North, Transit for Livable Communities and several other local organizations.
The Washington, D.C., native moved to the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College where he got a degree in English and music. A musician and award-winning composer, Strange has drawn from his studies in classical, jazz and West African music. He adapted Langston Hughes’ poetry into a song cycle for a 2011 Fringe Festival show and is now composing an opera based on the life of Alberta Williams King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. Strange is no stranger to NEMAA or its main event, the annual spring studio crawl known as Art-A-Whirl, having performed with participating bands over the years.
“What I really want to be is a storyteller as a musician and composer. I think that’s what the arts can do, to really make visible narratives that are often unheard and that’s what I try to do as a composer,” he said.
Strange takes the helm of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District as city leadership, including Mayor Betsy Hodges, look to bolster the local creative economy, something that wasn’t always acknowledged before NEMAA rose to prominence.
“The conversation around the arts really veered toward that it’s an extra,” Kayzar said. “[We’re] trying to get people to look at artists as entrepreneurs. … You can’t talk about artists as something extra. They’re producing something. There’s a tangible there.”
Kayzar said the next task for NEMAA, whose core membership consist of artists in Northeast Minneapolis’ large studio buildings, is to draw in a new generation of members.
“For the sustainability of Northeast, there also has to be an awakening of the fact that maybe someday that young artists will move into a studio space,” she said.
The challenge is not that there aren’t enough artists, Strange said, but that they have to bridge the gap between younger, often multi-disciplined artists and the career artisans who occupy much of the studios in Northeast Minneapolis.
“You have photographers who are DJs, and painters who are dancers. They’re starting to do both or multiple things at the same time,” he said.
Strange said beyond expanding membership and fundraising, he is looking to add a summer event to round out NEMAA’s programming. Currently, the organization relies on its 14-member volunteer board, contractors and more than 200 volunteers to throw the biennial juried exhibition Wintertide and the annual Fall Fine Arts Show. Art-A-Whirl, now nearing its 22nd year, draws more than 30,000 people to studios each spring. It’s undetermined what the event could be, whether it’s an online-only fundraiser or even another festival, Kayzar.
Clarification: A previous version of this story said Strange was NEMAA’s second executive director. Strange is the second full-time, long-term executive director, Kayzar said.