Gia Hamilton became the executive director of the New Orleans African American Museum in early 2019. The museum, which first opened in 1996, was created to preserve and elevate the history, art, culture and contributions of African Americans in New Orleans and the African diaspora.
But when the New Orleans native took over the museum, it had experienced multiple closures, reopenings and financial problems that first began in 2003. By the early 2010s, the museum — which was undergoing extensive renovations — had received millions of dollars in federal funding, and yet was shuttered with little progress to show. Irvin Mayfield, the museum’s board president at the time, took out a large loan from First NBC Bank. By 2017, Mayfield was facing a federal fraud indictment related to his tenure as the head of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation and First NBC had collapsed.
Then, in 2018, the still-closed museum was sued by the group that took over the First NBC debt for defaulting on the loan.
However, the museum, located in an almost 200-year-old villa in Treme, the city’s oldest Black neighborhood, began to see an upturn with Hamilton at the helm. It had its grand re-opening in April 2019. But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and the museum had to close its doors once again.
More than three years later, Hamilton said, the museum is now debt-free. It is currently operating in its administrative building, while renovations are being done on the museum’s original building. Hamilton talked to Verite about rebuilding the museum and fundraising for future exhibits.
Verite: Why did you want to lead the museum?
Hamilton: I am a native New Orleanian and I moved into Treme-Lafitte in 2016. I was also a docent of the museum in 1996 when the museum first opened, actually, in this building.
I felt like I had the right set of skills and just the right amount of grit to do what I call a hybrid startup, which is that this museum had a history, some of it great, some of it not great. Every aspect of the business needed to be rebuilt from scratch and the vision needed to be reimagined. And that’s kind of like my sweet spot of the work. I really like building new models and I like thinking about how to take buildings, structures or organizations that were there and how to bring them into a more progressive state.
So for me, I felt like it was a kind of knowing I might just get lucky and be able to do this. I think I have the skills to do this and I certainly have the passion and the drive. I’m not a scary person, so I don’t run from difficult projects.
Verite: How did the museum deal with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges of reopening the museum under that?
Hamilton: By the end of 2019, we had had some successes. We had three successful exhibitions, which was pretty incredible. So we left 2019 having rented our space a lot, reintroducing ourselves to the community and reaffirming that we were back. And then we go into the first quarter [of 2020] and COVID hits and the quarantine happens. And I’ll be honest, I was a little stunned and I kind of didn’t immediately know what we were going to do. But from an entrepreneurial perspective, you focus on what you can do, you control your controllables.
So COVID, in many ways, gave us kind of an opportunity to think about setting a really firm [financial] foundation, which I’ve said is one of the reasons why many Black and brown institutions struggle and remain vulnerable, right?
I think [the COVID pandemic] sort of set us up for some of the successes that we’re currently having — the spirit or the attitude of ‘you use what you have,’ and that you take advantage of the opportunity of time, the gift of time. So you know, asking the question, “What can we do if we’re not going to be open to the general public? What investment do we make now that is going to pay dividends later on?” And I think that that’s a key to NOAAM’s success thus far.
Verite: Speaking of successes, you all were in a lot of debt. How did you manage to wrest yourselves out of it?
Hamilton: I won’t make it sort of salacious or sexy. Black and brown cultural institutions oftentimes are in positions where you have to make decisions about the now and there’s a sense of pressure and urgency, which doesn’t always lend itself to making the best long-term decisions.
And in this case, I think the museum did its due diligence, you know, the museum had a loan with First NBC. It was a bridge loan in order to do some gap funding for construction and that’s pretty typical. But First NBC unfortunately shut down, which left their debt available. This particular group [Treme Guardian] bought the debt from First NBC, and repositioned themselves in a relationship with the museum. I wasn’t involved in negotiating that. Unfortunately, I sort of inherited it.
But we knew that we were going to want to professionalize the debt. So that’s a difference from getting rid of it, to professionalize means we start to build it into our budget, so that we have debt service, or we find the proper lender or the proper lending product, that’s best for our financial situation as an organization.
The actual dynamics that we had with our lenders weren’t favorable to us. They weren’t the best set of circumstances for us. We needed predictability. We needed to be on stable footing. We needed to be able to show this debt service in a budget in our performance to investors and donors and funders. It took four years [to get out of debt].
2020 was our very first annual report ever in 25 years. What that means is that financially and otherwise, we were able to be transparent with the public about where we were spending money and where we were receiving money.
Verite: Has the museum’s past connection with Irvin Mayfield affected fundraising today?
Hamilton: I think that there’s a lot of space in between it. I think it certainly was a factor in the museum’s perception publicly during that time. You know, it’s unfortunate [that] your personal public dealings can affect the professional, certainly.
But I think the very good thing is that I did work in philanthropy, and I have good relationships in philanthropy, and I’m really grateful. A lot of our funders really make strong commitments to my leadership.
Verite: What surprises people the most when they visit the museum?
Hamilton: I think people are really interested in the way in which we weave the story of the indigenous 82 tribes with the story of the first documented Africans being here in the early 1700s and our contributions. Oftentimes, we think about Black contributions as being purely cultural, or the development of culture here, but in fact, it’s super interesting, because it’s actually almost every aspect of life.
Black people contributed very early on [to] politics, medicine, architecture, urban planning, education, spirituality, certainly abolitionist-based work continuously. So, I feel like it’s fun to see native New Orleanians and our visitors learn new things about New Orleans, new facts that I think helped them to have a similar experience to the one that I had, which is, “What else don’t I know about Black people?” So I think that comes up really strongly for people, our visitors, our young people, which is so much fun. That’s my favorite part, to help share narratives with young people.
Verite: What are some future exhibits that you want to implement?
Hamilton: Our signature exhibit that we’re really excited about, that we’re actually fundraising for and dreaming up and thinking of right now is called, “Welcome to the AfroFuture.” It’s in its fourth iteration. So it debuted in Miami in 2018 and then we brought it to the museum in 2019 and it has become our annual juried show.
We, essentially now in this fourth iteration, are going to be commissioning several artists. So that’s a new thing for us: commissioning permanent work. And in addition to that, we’re jurying in other living Black artists, primarily from New Orleans and Louisiana and then also from the global diaspora.
So what we really want is a conversation that’s centered around New Orleans-based artists, and Blackness and futurism, in conversation with the rest of the world. And what we expect is that, that show will be at the museum next year and stay for about a year and then it will travel. So then all of those New Orleans artists and their work get to go to all these other places in the world. It’s exciting.
Verite: Do you have an ETA on when the museum will be moved back to its original campus?
Hamilton: I would love to have an ETA. I’d love to give you a real timeline. I would say it is dictated by this six to nine month [planning] period, putting together the people who are going to help with the planning and the fundraising is really the essential part. And then we can start to project how long it’s going to take us to raise this $15 million.
So my sort of joke, but really serious [ask] is, if you know some people with some millions of dollars that want to jumpstart this process, I would be able to tell you much sooner. But what I can share with the public is that we do have the architectural plans for this. So the big part of that planning, which is the architectural part, is already done. So now it is really about pulling together beautiful materials and telling our story and making sure again that we’re partnered with the right people who see this as not just a New Orleans vision, but really a global vision. We believe this campus is and should be an international epicenter. This should speak to the ways in which Black New Orleanians have influenced the world.
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