Every day after school and every Saturday, children of all ages fly through the door of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center in Schenectady.
They tap on computers, they do karate. Many explore the arts: painting and drawing, learning an African dance or taking a music lesson. The most popular classes are drumming, either on steel drums or African hand drums.
“I get my own show here every day,” says Doretha “Penny” Holmes, the new executive director.
After more than 20 years of working for the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes and the Boys & Girls Club of Albany, Holmes took on the job of leading the arts center last May.
The Watervliet resident succeeds Miki Conn, who retired after 11 years of directing the center that was founded in 1968 by Conn’s mother, Margaret Cunningham.
With a mission to promote knowledge, awareness and appreciation of the arts and culture of Africa and African-Americans, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center operates on an annual budget of $180,000 that is supported by membership, donation and public and private grants.
Classes are mostly free and serve 300 children from ages 5 to 18 every year.
Holmes’ last job was at Boys & Girls Club, where she worked for 13 years before leaving to have her first child, Pilar, who turned 3 on Feb. 2.
Holmes has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Russell Sage College, and an associate degree in legal studies from Junior College of Albany.
Q: What do people know about the Hamilton Hill Arts Center?
A: They think of galleries, they think of African-American culture. I know they think of Juneteenth. They think of our African drummers, because they’ve been out in the community, and the steel drummers, because we had a group here prior to this one that came in second at The Apollo, and they have a book written about them. There’s a lot of richness here that people just don’t know about. Right now, we are Capital District-wide with our programs. At the end of the month, we’ll be at Shaker High doing a program.
Q: What’s a typical day for you?
A: I don’t think there is a typical day. I come from the Boys & Girls Club of Albany, so I had a big staff. Here, I’m the only full-time staff member. So I’m doing things that I never thought I’d be doing. (She laughs).
Q: You’ve been on the job nine months. How is it going?
A: Pretty good. There’s a lot of things I’m still working on, researching, trying to find out. It’s fun, because you are growing an organization. It’s a challenge.
Q: How did you get started in this career?
A: In the early 1990s, I was in college, and my sister worked for the YWCA as the switchboard operator. I used to visit her, and I got to know a lot of women because they had 100 women that lived on site. She married someone in the military and left, and I took over the switchboard operator position in the evenings while I was in college. I got to learn the staff members, I got to see what was going on. I did some typing, so I got to see the grants that were coming through. I really got to know the consumers and really, really loved it. I moved up from switchboard operator to acting executive director. I was 25 or 26.
Q: So, you’ve worked with both children and adults?
A: When I was at the YWCA, I was seeing women going through a lot of transition. We dealt with a lot of women that were going through domestic violence situations, coming from incarceration situations. When I came to the Boys & Girls Club, I was able to see the children that were a part of it. Their mothers were in this situation, not all, but some. I went from working with women to working with families and children. And I really enjoy that.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish at HHAC?
A: What I am here to do is not to change the mission. But we’re surrounded by unemployment. We’re surrounded by domestic issues. By youth violence. The dropout rate in school. We will still continue to be true to our mission to the arts, but we’re also going to look at some of these other facets.
Q: Could you give me an example?
A: We have a nutrition program. We just got certified by the state. We have children who come here that are hungry. Filling that need. Health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure. We would bring resources into the community for them. I have a lot of parents who call me and bring over their faxes. People who don’t have telephones. Things like that.
Q: How do you want to get the word out about the center?
A: I want to bring more artists into the community. Bringing in an advisory board that’s separate from our board, that is more on a corporate level, that can bring in resources and connect me to the people that I need to be connected to. We are talking with Schenectady County Community College to see what type of programs we can bring in right on site. We’re talking with Girls Inc. We’re getting the website updated. We’re getting on the schedule for Art Night. We’re looking at every option.
Q: What events are you working on?
A: We have two major events: our gala and our Juneteenth event. That’s been well-received in the community and in the Capital District. We’re looking for people who would like to participate in that.
Q: Are you making program changes?
A: We’re going to expand our afterschool program. We’re going to get into a little more of the academics. We have a lot of children that need assistance with reading and writing. We’re looking to do some senior programming. I’m talking to nursing homes to see if we can bring in African drumming because it’s very therapeutic. I’m really trying to bring in more adult programs, too.
Q: How many part-timers and volunteers do you have?
A: I have part-time outreach coordinator and a custodian. I’m bringing on an executive assistant and a grant writer. We have a lot of consultants that work with us because of all of the performances that we do. We have an average of 50 volunteers. We couldn’t do it without them.
Q: What is the center’s role in teaching African-American culture?
A: I think it’s very important that our own children fully know our culture, that we teach that. But we also learn about other cultures. That’s very important, too.
Q: Who is running the Jerry Burrell Art Gallery?
A: I’m doing it myself. I’ve had two shows since I’ve come on. In the past, we’ve done it every quarter, and I’m looking to do that, too. Recently, we were at Proctors with our artwork, when they did “Superior Donuts.”
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I spent half the years in South Carolina and half the years here, back and forth. I was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the majority of my family lives in South Carolina. They came up here and migrated back. I went to Troy High School, Doyle Middle School and School 12 in South Troy.
Q: What was your favorite subject in high school?
A: I was really into DECA, which was a business club. I also loved history.
Q: What did you like to do as a kid?
A: I loved reading. I belonged to a book club. Because I was from the South and we were farmers, I did a lot of shelling of beans and everything else. I was also a bit of a tomboy.
Q: What was your family farm like?
A: My grandparents were farmers. It was 25 minutes from the city. A small farm. We had cows and horses and chickens and hogs. I really really loved it. We never wore shoes, we were running through the woods. It was just a simple way of life.
Q: What kind of food did you grow?
A: All types of beans, corn, collard greens, sugar cane, pumpkins, you name it. My grandfather tried everything.
Q: What do you do for fun these days?
A: Spend time with my child.
Q: Which name do you prefer, “Penny” or “Doretha”?
A: Just as many people call me “Penny” as “Doretha.” I like them both.