Nonprofits – Hamilton Hill Arts Center still molds young lives: Facility continues to educate community on African culture

Rachel and Miki Conn are pictured in front of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center
Rachel and Miki Conn are pictured in front of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center

The broken tile, stones and shards of glass inlaid on the wood glimmered in the glimpses of light shining through the blinds of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.

The mosaics are set to be made into benches that will be placed in a sculpture park.

The project is just one of the many programs and events children and community members who use the center have participated in.

Hamilton Hill Arts Center started in 1968 and was incorporated in 1969 by Margaret Cunningham.

“This was during the Civil Rights movement, and my mother had a strong desire to contribute in some way to the improvement of our community. And she saw the ability of the arts to make significant changes in children’s lives,” said Miki Conn, who would later become the center’s executive director in 1999 and stayed on the job for 11 years.
“As an artist herself, this was right up her alley, so she came up with the idea of an arts center, and that was the beginning.”

Conn said that during the first summer the center was open, children rode up to Thacher Park where they participated in various arts and crafts.

“By the time that the summer was over it was realized by the people involved that we needed a year-round program,” Conn said.

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Family ties
Since opening, the center has continued to be run by the Conn family, with Miki Conn’s daughter, Rachel Conn, taking over as executive director in 2017.

While much has changed at the center, including moving three different times, the mission of the organization has remained the same: To promote the knowledge, preservation and continued development of the art and culture of the African diaspora.

That preservation continues through programs such as Art Reach, the after-school and summer program the center runs for kids ages 6 through 17. Children participate in activities such as drumming, African and hip-hop dance, and coding. During the after-school program, children receive a snack, and during the summer program they get a free lunch.

The center also offers adult classes for a small fee, according to the its website. Those classes have included African dance, steel pan and Capoeira, a martial art that includes elements of dance and music. Currently, the center has short-term classes for adults, including a diamond painting and a discussion class, which will be run by Miki Conn. The Susan Cunningham Library offers written works on African American and African culture, and the Jerry Burrell Gallery showcases African diasporic artists.

Continuing to expand
For the past several decades the center has continued to expand, finding ways to incorporate African culture into the community and the community into the center. The minority-operated nonprofit is now the only community center left in the Hamilton Hill area and the only one focused on the arts, according to the center’s website.

This year the center started an African market in its new sculpture park. While the park is still under development, Rachel Conn said she wanted to see the park get some use.

“Hamilton Hill is an economically impoverished area, and part of our mission is to support creativity and community building among those that are descendants of the African diaspora, and we decided that an African market would be a great way to meet those goals,” she said.

Conn said she’s confident the market will continue to grow, adding that the goal is to continue finding ways to reach community members.

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Part of that goal is renovating the center. The organization originally received $70,000 from the city to make the building safe and efficient for programming. However, Conn kept seeking funding and was able to get an additional $300,000 from the state. That money will allow the center to expand further, which she said is currently being worked out, with more details to come.

“We often had more students than we had room for in our more popular classes,” Rachel Conn said. “We need improved dance and performance space, library and education space. We will have a commercial kitchen, as well as music rooms for private lessons.”

Conn said anyone can offer ideas for programming at the center.

“We encourage it,” she said. “One of the things I want the community to feel is that the arts center belongs to them. It’s their community center. So if they would like a program they don’t see, I encourage them to come speak to me about it so that we can create that together. If they have a skill that they want to share, I also encourage them to come speak to me to see if it’s a program that we can begin to offer.”

Rachel Conn said many of the children who once participated in programs at the center have come back to volunteer. For example, board treasurer Jessica Hunter grew up going to the center, taking African dance, and now volunteers as a teacher for the class.

“We’re a multigenerational arts center, so we have grandparents who went to the arts center as children whose kids also went to the arts center, and whose grandchildren are also now going to the arts center,” said Rachel Conn.

People can volunteer by reaching out to Conn at 518-313-2556 or [email protected] Donations for the center are also accepted on the center’s website at or by a check mailed to the center at 409 Schenectady St., Schenectady, NY 12308.

Hamilton Hill Arts Center
Founded: Started in 1968, incorporated in 1969
Mission: To promote the knowledge, preservation and continued development of the arts and culture of the African diaspora
Area served: City of Schenectady
Quote: “One of the things I want the community to feel is that the arts center belongs to them,” said Rachel Conn, executive director. “It’s their community center.”

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021


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