When it comes to arts and culture in the Twin Cities, and some of the individuals and institutions associated with its creative output, the region has long punched above its weight class, significantly outdistancing cities of a similar size. Not to mention the number of performing artists per capita in the Twin Cities is on par with larger entertainment centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
From the outside, it might seem like a lot of the focus is on Minneapolis. For some, the Guthrie or the Walker Art Center or MIA may immediately come to mind. Then, of course, we have the Minneapolis Sound.
Indeed, Minnesota’s capital city boasts more than its fair share of cultural heroes and hubs. Legends such as Gordon Parks, August Wilson, and Laurie Carlos all called St. Paul home, and their artistic impact in the Rondo neighborhood and around the world is indelible.
Penumbra, the premier African American theatre company will soon celebrate 50 years. The aforementioned Minneapolis Sound? It’s had quite a few contributors from St. Paul over the years: Dez Dickerson, Cynthia Johnson, Mint Condition, and the Sounds of Blackness.
Then there’s Walker West Music Academy. Recently named a Minnesota Regional Cultural Treasure award recipient, Walker West is one of the oldest African American community conservatories in the country.
Founded in 1988, by Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West, Walker West has been a mainstay along Selby Ave. ever since.
“The Pioneer Press ran a story in the late 1980s about the crack epidemic in the city,” noted Braxton Haulcy, executive director at Walker West since 2019. “That stretch along Selby was basically an open-air drug market. They called it ‘crack street.’”
But that didn’t deter Rev. Walker or West, who remained steadfast in their mission to give kids in the community the opportunity to transform their lives through music.
“If someone shot out a window in the building,” explained Haulcy, “then they’d just fix the window and get back to work. As Rev. Walker used to say, ‘Let’s trade the guns for the keyboards.’”
Three decades later, the enduring success, influence, and evolution of Walker West necessitated a bigger space. And in 2021, Haulcy launched a capital campaign. This initiative, dubbed “The Power of Music to Heal Our Community,” was designed to increase the school’s capacity, expand its reach, and find a new home in the neighborhood.
A transformational gift
As the campaign continued, Walker West was moving closer and closer to realizing its goals for growth, while continuing to position itself as a cultural touchstone for generations to come. Then came the gift that changed everything.
Walker West had already approached the Sauer Family Foundation as part of its fundraising effort, which at the time was not accepting any new requests for support.
However, unbeknownst to Haulcy and his team, Patricia and Gary Sauer were looking to provide a personal gift to a Rondo-based organization and sought the input of Mychael and Stephanie Wright, founders of the Selby Avenue JazzFest and Golden Thyme Coffee & Café.
The Wrights, who recently transferred ownership of the tremendously popular coffee shop to the Rondo Community Land Trust, had the perfect recommendation for the Sauers: Walker West.
“The Sauers reached out to us asking if they could conduct a site visit,” Haulcy said. “And after spending time with us at 760 Selby Ave., to take the time to see the type of work we were doing, they told us they were overwhelmed.”
The Sauer’s personal gift of $4 million, exceeded even Haulcy’s wildest expectations. “This gift is totally transformational,” declared Haulcy. “I can’t begin to describe just what this means to us at Walker West. It allows us to move into our new facility, without the burden of any financing, any debt.
“And more money to put toward programming. We are so grateful to Pat and Gary for their spirit, their generosity, and their love for this community.”
“We care about the Rondo community, and Walker West is a beam of light here,” said Pat Sauer. “We have to make sure that beam stays bright. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of our world, but Walker West is about hope and joy. There has been real pain in this community, and Walker West is helping heal and bring back its vibrancy.”
Music education is essential
Walker West’s new home at 650 Marshall Ave., between St. Alban’s and Dale streets, will include two performance halls, a state-of-the-art recording studio, digital music labs, more rehearsal and administrative space, instrument storage, increased parking, and more pick-up/drop-off options.
Construction is slated to begin in February, and Haulcy anticipates that Walker West will be able to move into its new home before the school year starts in the fall of 2024.
Acknowledging the support of other donors and some key community partners, including Model Cities and the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC Twin Cities), Haulcy is beyond excited about the future of an institution whose alumni have gone on to study at places such as the famed Julliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
“Kids need the arts. They need music education,” he said, adding that these are not luxuries, but rather “essential” to society.
“The musicians that teach at our school, our students and families, those who support us in any number of ways. They believe in our mission,” observed Haulcy. “These people know our story. How important we are to this community. They feed the vibe at Walker West.”
To learn more about the Walker West Music Academy, how you can become involved, and all that it has to offer, including the new Rondo Community Music Series, please visit walkerwest.org.