A Picture of Success in Tarrytown
In a rough financial climate, how did an 1885 theater become an economic powerhouse?
The Tarrytown Music Hall is the showpiece of Tarrytown's Main Street.
In tough times, economists say life’s little extras—like tickets to concerts and plays—are the first things slashed from the family budget. Maybe those economists should study the Tarrytown Music Hall.
Today, when many arts organizations are pulling back, the historic Main Street theater is growing. The Music Hall saw an increase of 31 percent in paid attendance from 2008 to 2009—just when Wall Street was hitting its roughest patch—and those numbers have held steady for 2010. Look back further, and the picture gets even rosier: attendance has grown more than 400 percent since 2005. “We would have increased more had it not been for the recession,” says Executive Director Björn Olsson.
What accounts for this success? “We were, until eight or nine years ago, a volunteer organization,” Olsson says. “We decided that we needed to become more professional, and that just started us on this trajectory of expansion. We’ve been offering a lot more programming.” (The Music Hall presents an average of 200 shows per year.) The not-for-profit Music Hall still relies on hundreds of volunteers in addition to its paid staff, but programming is more varied and more consistently offered than when the Music Hall had to rely on outside promoters renting the theater to put on their own shows to fill the venue. “Renters are very risk-adverse,” he says. “Their events had to be on a Saturday during a surefire time of year.”
For the most part, the shows the Music Hall puts on each year pay for themselves. “We could probably operate right now without any fundraised money at all,” he says. That doesn’t, however, include the upkeep of the 1885 building. Fortunately, in addition to ticket sales, grants are also surprisingly up. The theater has received $100,000 from the New York State Dormitory Authority through State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a $150,000 matching grant from Save America’s Treasures through Congresswoman Nita Lowey, and a HUD Community Block Grant through Westchester County. “We’ve proven our worth to the community over the last five to ten years,” Olsson says. “The government has recognized that, and now these funds are starting to be available to us."
The benefits of this success don’t just stay within the confines of the Music Hall. A 2009 patron survey showed that, for most performances, 35 percent of patrons come from outside of Westchester, and 60 to 85 percent of patrons have dinner in or around Tarrytown before a show. “Our patrons contribute around a million dollars every year in dining money alone,” Olsson says. “A large majority would never visit Tarrytown if it weren’t for the Music Hall. This is important not just for Tarrytown, but for Westchester and New York State. If we weren’t here, there might be a venue in Rockland or New Jersey that would wind up getting that business.”