Leatrice Ellzy Wright to leave Hammonds House Museum for Apollo Theater post

Leatrice Ellzy Wright is leaving her post as executive director of the Hammonds House Museum to become senior director of programming at the Apollo Theater.

Credit: Michael Moss

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Leatrice Ellzy Wright is leaving her post as executive director of the Hammonds House Museum to become senior director of programming at the Apollo Theater.

Credit: Michael Moss

Years ago, when Leatrice Ellzy Wright was a new graduate of Tennessee State University, she attended the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta.

It was 10 magical days of concerts, plays and exhibits by Black artists from around the world. Afterward she was convinced she’d seen her future.

“I called my mother and was like, ‘Mommy, there’s this thing I just went to, it was wonderful! It was great! It was all these Black artists and it was called the National Black Arts Festival and you know what? If they met me, they would want to hire me,’” Wright recalled recently.

Fast forward two decades, after working at Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Woodruff Arts Center, Wright’s declaration came true. The National Black Arts Festival hired her to run programming. She left after 10 years in 2012 to do consulting and other projects. But three years ago, Wright took on the daunting task of helping to revive a mainstay Atlanta Black arts institution, one that opened the same year as the festival: Hammonds House Museum. She became only the third executive director in the organization’s three-decade history. The museum was never meant to be such. The Victorian home was purchased by Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds, an anesthesiologist and prolific art collector who wanted a showcase for his holdings of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century Black art. He died before he could finish renovating the space, but a committed group of arts advocates and funding from Fulton County helped turn the house into a museum.

Wright joined the museum on the eve of its 30th anniversary, with a mandate to help stabilize the museum’s membership, expand its programming and position it for another 30 years. But before the pandemic settled in last year, the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem came calling. Now Wright is packing up and moving to New York to become the Apollo’s senior director of programming. Her last day at Hammonds House is May 31.

Here we talk to her about her time at Hammonds House and the path that led her to the Harlem theater where music and comedy legends were born.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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Leatrice Ellzy Wright, executive director of the Hammonds House Museum is leaving to helm programming at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Sean Cokes

Leatrice Ellzy Wright, executive director of the Hammonds House Museum is leaving to helm programming at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Sean Cokes

Combined ShapeCaption
Leatrice Ellzy Wright, executive director of the Hammonds House Museum is leaving to helm programming at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Sean Cokes

Credit: Sean Cokes

Q: You’d only been at Hammonds House not quite two years before the Apollo came calling. How did that happen?

A: A recruiter. I had been recommended by colleagues in the arts field from around the country. (The recruiter) said the number of people who were like, ‘If you can get Leatrice out of Atlanta, that’s a win for you guys.’ It was so touching because I’ve been at Hammonds House for three years, which means I wasn’t in the performing space anymore.

Q: The Apollo is, well, the Apollo.

A: When you think about doing this work in Black spaces, the Apollo is kind of the apex. It’s the legacy institution of Black performance. Eighty-seven years its been celebrated.

Q: That’s a tremendous opportunity, but it also seems daunting. How will you move that institution forward?

A: It’s like, how are you shifting gears for the 21st century, but not forgetting the past? It is on that stage that so many really memorable things happened; James Brown proclaiming, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” And you’re still going to do mainstays. I mean Amateur Night is not going anyplace. But it’s also looking at what’s up next. We have two new theater spaces that will be opening up, so we could literally [mount] a play that wouldn’t be on our mainstage. It’s really exciting because I feel as though I’m entering the Apollo right when they’re making a shift and a pivot.

Q: Let’s talk about the work you did at Hammonds House. What did you find when you got there? What were the challenges?

A: When I came there were so many people saying, ‘I don’t even know if the Hammonds House is still open.’ That was problematic because the organization had gotten quiet. The first thing to do was to stop people from saying, ‘I didn’t know you’re still open.’ So, we started there with, ‘Okay, what does our programming schedule look like? What are we projecting outwardly? What are the things we can do where the media can pick up on it? What are things we can do where we are animating people’s imagination?’ We had to start rebuilding our membership. I have a small team, so it’s like let’s start with these two priorities and then we’re going to branch out.

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Myrna Anderson-Fuller, (left), former executive director of Hammonds House Museum, Kevin Sipp, (center) former curator of Hammonds House and Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (right), current Hammonds House executive director. Wright is leaving to take a senior post at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Myrna Anderson-Fuller, (left), former executive director of Hammonds House Museum, Kevin Sipp, (center) former curator of Hammonds House and Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (right), current Hammonds House executive director. Wright is leaving to take a senior post at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Combined ShapeCaption
Myrna Anderson-Fuller, (left), former executive director of Hammonds House Museum, Kevin Sipp, (center) former curator of Hammonds House and Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (right), current Hammonds House executive director. Wright is leaving to take a senior post at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Q: What do you feel you left undone?

A: Year four was when we were going to go after some larger donors and foundations and really start to build out the major sustainability plan, putting six months of reserve away, really getting the budget to a place that a 30-year-old institution should be. Black institutions have historically been underfunded.

Q: What are the things you’re proudest of, the legacy you leave behind?

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The past and present of Hammonds House Museum. Exiting executive director Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (left), Ed Spriggs, founding director of Hammonds House, (center) and Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay, (right) at an exhibition opening at the museum.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

The past and present of Hammonds House Museum. Exiting executive director Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (left), Ed Spriggs, founding director of Hammonds House, (center) and Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay, (right) at an exhibition opening at the museum.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Combined ShapeCaption
The past and present of Hammonds House Museum. Exiting executive director Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (left), Ed Spriggs, founding director of Hammonds House, (center) and Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay, (right) at an exhibition opening at the museum.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy

A: I know a lot of artists nationally, so I was able to pick up the phone and call (MacArthur Grant recipient) Carrie Mae Weems and say, ‘Carrie, we’re opening our (30th) anniversary season and I would love to open it with you.’ And she said ‘Absolutely.’ It was a beautiful exhibition and that was 2018. And then I called on Fahamu Pecou, and said, ‘Fahamu, I’d like for you to curate a show.’ And then we brought in the “Dandy Lion (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” project, which was a huge, huge hit. Shanequa Gay, “Love Letter to the West End.” That show was amazing. So, I’ve been able to work with some really great artists and create some amazing work that has been unique to the organization that drew people in. So, suddenly, our membership was building...so, all I did was really help turn the corner. And you know, I feel as though we have successfully turned a corner, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

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Artist Carrie Mae Weems, (left), Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (center) executive director of Hammonds House Museum, writer and collector Halima Taha, (right) at Hammond House.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy Wright

Artist Carrie Mae Weems, (left), Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (center) executive director of Hammonds House Museum, writer and collector Halima Taha, (right) at Hammond House.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy Wright

Combined ShapeCaption
Artist Carrie Mae Weems, (left), Leatrice Ellzy Wright, (center) executive director of Hammonds House Museum, writer and collector Halima Taha, (right) at Hammond House.

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy Wright

Credit: Leatrice Ellzy Wright