When Keno Evol first saw the storefront on Minnehaha Avenue, a former window repair shop, it lacked ceilings, flooring, lighting. Picturing it as a finished space required imagination.
Good thing that imagination is Evol's specialty.
He and the other leaders of Black Table Arts dreamed and planned and hustled, working with the landlord to shape the space. This week, they're celebrating the result: the organization's first physical home. The south Minneapolis storefront boasts co-working and performance areas, a cozy reading corner and a bookstore.
Evol sees it as a place where Black artists can create and liberate. A home for education and activism.
"We believe in uplifting Black organizing through the arts," said Evol, founder and executive director of Black Table Arts. The building will "gather Black communities to think about increasing the volume of Black lives."
It's among several spaces popping up in the Twin Cities to nurture Black creatives. Black Arts Center, a home for the Black-run youth nonprofit 30,000 Feet, is fundraising for a building in St. Paul. Black Garnet Books, a Black, woman-owned bookstore, has plans to open a permanent space in 2021. Just up Minnehaha Avenue from Black Table Arts, Black Girl in Om is building out a wellness and healing center.
The police killing of George Floyd last year and the protests that followed added urgency to build spaces for Black activism and the funds to do so. Over the summer, people all over the world — including Issa Rae, creator of HBO's "Insecure" — contributed more than $400,000 to Black Table Arts.
"We sit in a lot of gratitude," Evol said. "But I always say that this is about promise keeping. When we got this donational support, the first question was: How do we keep our promise?"
'Already doing the work'
That's one reason the space is organized as a cooperative, with pay-what-you-can memberships and shared governance.
The heavy events of 2020 sped up where the organization was already headed, said Alfred Sanders, director of operations.
"We were already doing the work," he said. "We've been doing the work for six years now. This just allowed us to take another step and deepen our roots in the community."
Founded in 2016, the organization has hosted programs including open mics at the Illusion Theater, a biweekly writing workshop called Black Lines Matter at the Loft Literary Center and the Because Black Life Conference at the University of Minnesota.
Writer and educator Carolyn Holbrook encountered Evol and the organization in its early days.
"He's got this magic about him," she said. "He is in touch with what the community needs and cares about."
Over the decades, Black artists have carved out spaces for community in the Twin Cities, some of them lasting, said Holbrook, whose memoir, "Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify," came out last year.
Holbrook herself founded SASE: The Write Place in 1993 as an alternative to the Loft, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, making literary arts accessible to a diverse community.
"I see Black Table Arts' new space as sort of a resting place for Black writers," Holbrook said. "It will add another layer of power of the Twin Cities literary arts community."
Steeped in history
Step inside Black Table Arts and the first thing you'll see is a quote from historian John Curl, stretching across the wall: "Cooperatives are visionary institutions that we can all create, wherever we are. All it takes is three or more people in a mutual aid relationship.
"Of course, that's not as easy as it may sound, as you probably know if you've ever tried to share a kitchen, bathroom or bedroom with another person."
Each room is named after a Black artist, their own words on the walls. There's the Toni Cade Bambara conference room, the Octavia Butler meeting room, the Lorraine Hansberry reading nook.
Evol cites their words in conversation, explaining how this place's purpose is steeped in history. The cooperative is indebted to past initiatives, he said, especially those locally that stoked art and activism.
"Art keeps the enthusiasm of the movement alive," said Evol, editor of "A Garden of Black Joy: Global Poetry From the Edges of Liberation and Living," an anthology. "If you hear a poem at a protest, you want to stick around longer."
Artists, too, can imagine different futures, he said, designing new, more equitable systems.
Evol and Sanders, who has worked with Black Table Arts for three years, first met in elementary school. Evol was a high school theater kid and a child of the spoken word and poetry slam circuit. Sanders, too, discovered his artistry as a youth. But as a young singer, he didn't know how or where to start. So he searched Craigslist.
"It shouldn't be that difficult for an artist," he said.
Sanders, of Minneapolis, wants Black Table Arts to become a "one-stop shop" for artists getting started, he said. A singer could write and record there. Participate in writing workshops and grant-writing classes. Meet mentors and collaborators.
"You can only learn so much from YouTube," he said. "This will be an artist hub and resource center for Black artists to come in community and find the resources necessary for them to elevate their craft."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168