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Hamilton Hill Arts Center's annual gala set for Sunday

Hamilton Hill Arts Center's annual gala set for Sunday

Black Arts Movement Soul Brunch
Hamilton Hill Arts Center's annual gala set for Sunday
Jynnae Stevens of the group Umoja peforms last summer during the Music Haven series.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

The Hamilton Hill Arts Center will hold its annual fund-raising gala at a new location on Sunday, but with a familiar name back at the helm.

Schenectady native Rachel Conn is the center’s new executive director and is hoping a large group of supporters will come to the Rivers Casino Event Center Sunday at noon for the Black Arts Movement Soul Brunch, celebrating Black history through music.

“We contacted the casino and had a meeting with them, and they said they would like to host our gala for us,” said Conn, whose mother, Miki Conn, and grandmother, Margaret Cunningham, were also executive directors at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. “We thought it’d be a good idea. We’re hoping for around 150, and we were thinking we might get even more if people are interested in taking a look at the casino.”

Conn replaces Omoye Cooper at the helm, who had been at the center since March of 2014. A University at Albany grad, Cooper had taken over for former Schenectady Police Chief Mark Chaires, who was in the position for only a year. Chaires had succeeded Miki Conn, who served for 11 years after taking over for her mother back in 1999.

It was Conn’s grandmother, Margaret Cunningham, who created the Hamilton Hill Arts Center back in 1968 and remained closely involved for more than three decades. Cunningham passed away on Dec. 24 of last year at the age of 97.

“Omoye wanted to move on to do something else, so I took over and because I grew up here, I kind of feel like I hit the ground running,” said Conn, who went back to school and finished her education, getting a degree in Afro-centric Studies at Empire State College. “I’m still figuring out a few things, but I do have a long history here. I came when I was a kid, and I did work here for seven years. I started out at the bottom doing a number of things, and then I began learning how to write grants.”

Entertainment for Sunday’s event will be provided by Umoja, an African dance and drumming troupe that has called the Hamilton Hill Arts Center home for nearly 40 years. Sue Wilson-Deane is the volunteer coach/coordinator off the program, which was created by her older brother, Dan Wilson.

“We teach them traditional African dance and drumming, and how everyone; men, women, boys and children, can work together for a common goal,” said Wilson-Deane. “We want to spread knowledge about our culture through African dance and music, and we want to teach them about the importance of being a part of a team and working together. The kids have a lot of fun, but it’s also about educating them. We like to focus on education.”

Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, has performed at the New York State Fair, various churches and school in the region, and helps the Schenectady community celebrate Juneteenth every year.

“Our youngest girl is 8, and we have older men and women who were dancers or drummers and come back and help us every year,” said Wilson-Deane. “We have a good corps of dancers, around 10, but we also have girls who are just starting out and aren’t really ready to perform yet. We have had some boys in the past as dancers, but right now it’s all girls.”

‘Black Arts Movement Soul Brunch’

WHAT: A fund-raiser for the Hamilton Hill Arts Center

WHEN: Noon Sunday

WHERE: Rivers Casino Event Center, Schenectady

HOW MUCH: $65

MORE INFO: 346-1262, www.hamiltonhillartscenter.org

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