WORDS BY SANAPHAY RATTANAVONG
Nikki Rykhus—the new Executive Director of Twin Cities Catalyst Music (Catalyst), a nonprofit committed to providing young people access and opportunities in the music community—finds themself coming full circle.
Catalyst runs both The Garage in Burnsville and The Treasury in St. Paul, which are all-ages, alcohol-free music venues, recording studios, and educational facilities. Rykhus recalls how their first job as a teenager was at The Garage, where they trained in the former Executive Director, Jack Kolb-Williams, on booking.
“I am the predecessor and successor of Jack Kolb-Williams,” says Rykhus. She notes how cool it is to comeback and see how much both Kolb-Williams and Logan Adams, another co-founder, have done for the growth of Catalyst. “It’s an honor to come back and to have him as a mentor now,” she says.
Like most journeys, Rykhus’s was not a straight line: They went to college for art and animation, then dropped out; went to college for film and video, then dropped out; journalism, dropped out. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s take a look here and see what it is you want to do,’” says Rykhus. “I was like, ‘What in life did I love?’ And I loved The Garage. And what did I really love about it? I loved working with the kids.” They pursued a degree in life science teaching, graduated last spring, and took on the role of Catalyst Executive Director this summer. Their enthusiasm for the role is unmistakable.
In between, over the last seven years, Rykhus worked in education: as a special education assistant, in community education, and as a teacher for Freedom Schools, among other roles. “So [it was] just all about STEM justice, getting everybody access to science, and that they can be a part of science as well,” they say.
Now, they get to combine their background in education and access with their love of music. “It’s a lot of new visions, old traditions—that’s a lot of what it feels like, because it really is returning home for me,” says Rykhus. “This is the space I grew up—in middle school and high school. It’s where I booked my first show, it’s where I learned how to do sound engineering, it’s where I got into the first bands I was in, it’s where I met some of my best friends and mentors.”
Catalyst is a rare bird, being youth-led. Rykhus notes how much of a privilege it is to be over the age of 21 when it comes to live music access.
“Everyone should be able to experience music, especially young musicians [and music-lovers] or somebody who wants to grow a career in the music industry,” says Rykhus. They say Catalyst, through The Garage and The Treasury, opens that door, so that young folks have a platform to jump off and have their voices amplified. “There’s not many spaces like that,” Rykhus notes.
Physical space to anchor such opportunities is also rare. “The thing I always tell my staff and other folks is, we’re not a venue, we’re a nonprofit and a youth-led space,” says Rykhus. “It could’ve been a garden, it could’ve been a skate park, it could’ve been anything—the point is the music is the hook, we’re growing our leaders in the community and having them come back and grow the community, too, and having that space where they feel safe and valued as well.”
Having opened in 1999, The Garage is well-established. But Catalyst’s second spot, The Treasury, just opened this April on the East Side of St. Paul. Rykhus aspires to make The Treasury for St. Paul what The Garage has been for Burnsville, admitting that it won’t be an easy task, given the COVID-19 pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd.
“You know, this is the first time in my life that I really felt hope for change,” says Rykhus. “Burning things down is obviously not the solution, but we’re in a space now, in a time right now, where a lot of change is going to happen, and I think that a lot of that change is going to come from young people. So that’s why it’s important that we make a space that’s safe and accessible to them, that we help them build that platform that amplifies their voice, that they can get their voice out there, they can tell their stories, they can tell their truth, and help make change.”
And being part of that change is showing up. “It’s a lot of putting pieces together, reaching out, and being there, being present,” they say. “So, if anybody on East Side is looking to do music stuff, hey, send me an email, let’s do something cool, do you need a space for an event? Hey, check us out. Have an idea for music afterschool programming or need a space or a stage? We got one. I’m really excited to see how we can grow that space.” East Side St. Paul, notes Rykhus, is also the community in which they live.
True to the name Catalyst, Rykhus aspires to spark constructive reactions: “I hope that our spaces lead by example and partner with schools, partner with organizations, and get other spaces like that started for young folks. I wish every town, every city in the country had a Garage or Treasury.”
As a bonus, learning and leadership opportunities for youth at Catalyst are paid positions where up to ten youth are partnered with one adult. “The way I describe myself is, I’m kind of like Gandalf…I’m here to help and give advice and resources,” Rykhus says. “I realize it’s not the norm in education,” finding this balance between what the kids want and some structure instead of top-down pedagogy. They include:
Catalyst Music Council: Youth advisory board. “They get to me work with me and do leadership opportunities,” says Rykhus. This includes learning data analysis, program planning, strategy planning, brainstorming for solutions, and growing as leaders in the community.
Booking Team (within the Music Council): Rykhus says the youth lead the show from “day one to day of.” They build the network and connection, grow as a promoter, musician, whatever is involved. “Instead of a line, it becomes a web,” they say.
Video Production Collaborative: Paid internships to learn and practice video production.
Artist Collective: A youth artist development program.