New museum director

Sandy Bellamy, 33, will head the African American Museum

April 16, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

As a student at Washington's H.D. Woodson High School, her teachers made sure that Sandy Bellamy learned all about the black artists, writers and performers who have contributed so much to Western culture - even if many academic textbooks and curricula ignore them.

Much of her professional life has been spent ensuring other children gain a similar awareness of the diversity of our culture - a job that should become much easier, given yesterday's announcement that she has been named executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"African-American art and African-American historical contributions sometimes are relegated to the footnotes of our historical texts in the classrooms," Bellamy, 33, says during an interview in her Fayette Street office, a few blocks west of where the museum is scheduled to open by the end of the year. "I've found that not only in the regular high school and elementary training, but also when you get to college and you take your 101 course in U.S. history or world history or American art or world art.

"I remember going to my Western Art History class and seeing, `Wow, the Western hemisphere is much more diverse than what's represented in the classic texts here.' And then going to museums and figuring that, `Wow, there ought to be more artists represented here.' That sort of inspires a student to find out more about what is involved in Western art - a lot of it doesn't make it to the textbooks. That's how it all began for me, a long time ago."

Bellamy was appointed interim executive director after last April's firing of the museum's founding director, Nikki DeJesus Smith. She brings with her a background in art history (her minor at Howard University) and a law degree (also from Howard). She has worked at the Walters Art Museum, helping to secure state funding for its family art center, and at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. In February 2000, she was named director of development for the Lewis Museum.

"She is a highly skilled and competent individual with the highest integrity," museum board chairman George L. Russell Jr. said in a press release announcing her appointment. "With her legal background and her more than a decade of museum experience, she has demonstrated an unusual ability to transpose acquired knowledge into practical application."

A Washington native (she still commutes from D.C. daily) whose parents are from St. Michaels, Bellamy is taking over the head job at a time when the museum appears well-prepared to meet its scheduled opening. Its collection of artifacts, collected from throughout the state, is essentially complete, she says. With a treasury of some $38 million (including $5 million from the New York-based Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, honoring the late Baltimore business leader and philanthropist), its fund-raising goals have so far been met.

A curriculum focusing on African-American history and culture, designed in cooperation with the State Department of Education and focusing on students in grades 4 through 8, is ready to be put in place.

The biggest challenge remaining, Bellamy says, is to ensure that the public is aware of what will be inside the building going up at the corner of Pratt and President streets.

"We need to let people know that we're there," she says, "and [make sure] that they don't think that that museum is just for African-Americans. We want everyone to come and experience what we have to share in the museum. ... People are thirsting for this kind of content."

While Smith's firing led to some fears of a power struggle between the board and its executive director, Bellamy says she looks forward to working closely with the men and women who have helped carry the museum through its infancy, and welcomes their input.

"An apathetic board is sort of a death knell to an organization," she says, praising board members' tenacity and resourcefulness. "In some cases," she says, "40 years of favors are [being] put on the line, just so the museum might be able to get a grant from an organization."

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