The Women Leading the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling

The Women Leading the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling 

By Stephanie Cunningham
Co-Founder and Creative Director, Museum Hue

When I entered the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling I was met with a wide grin and warm embrace by Sandra Garcia-Betancourt, Interim Director of the Sugar Hill Museum. Her authentic greeting reminded me of those that I receive from the women in my own community — mamas, sistas, tías, nanas, and abuelas. Sandra believes in this kind of embrace of the community from museums. Sugar Hill moves away from the idea of museum as authority to museum as community member. The stories and narratives of the space include the perspectives of the Sugar Hill neighborhood residents. “We do nothing without thinking and speaking with the community first,” said Garcia-Betancourt. “We provide a space for them to be expressive, feel empowered, and be a part of our family.” The museum is literally a shared community space.

While speaking with Jennifer Ifil-Ryan, Associate Director of Education and Community Engagement, I could hear her passion for supporting youth through independent and group work to reinforce the importance of individuality and collectivity to build power, intentionally, and community among their peers. Students learn the process of artmaking with material that will possibly frustrate them but encourage a reflective response to their work –articulating themselves through their creation. The outcome often speaks to who they are and how they are feeling. Ifil-Ryan also works hard in getting the word out about the museum to the community, even bringing flyers to the bodega. She says, “You can’t get away from the elitism of the museum but we must own it, use that power to empower the community. Develop pedagogy and culturally relevant lessons and programs that speaks to them.” 

Lauren Kelly, Associate Director of Curatorial Programs, push past expectations of a children’s museum and stretch visitors imaginations. She works to deliver the same level of quality of creativity experienced at any other museum. She proclaims, “We are reinforcing our children’s creative intelligence, exposing them to new forms of creation, and actualizing a space that allows them to be care free.” Children have the opportunity to contribute to how visitors experience the museum. They have helped sculpt, paint, and build works on view. Kelly makes it clear that while the museum taps into children's creativity and curiosity, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling is for everyone no matter their age. I can certainly attest to this while walking throughout the galleries. I didn’t feel out of place, but quite the contrary, comfortable enough to follow the prompts and participate in the activities throughout the exhibitions. 

Sandra Garcia-Betancourt, Jennifer Ifil-Ryan, and Lauren Kelly’s leadership illustrate how museums can effectively and authentically work to increase the community’s voice and visibility within the space.