Grantee Spotlight: Hudson Hall Renovation Promotes Cultural and Economic Advancement

 

Hudson Hall is located in Hudson, New York (Columbia County) and offers a year-round schedule of arts and cultural programming in the 1855 former Hudson City Hall, which contains New York State’s oldest surviving theater.  The following Q&A with Hudson Hall’s Executive Director, Tambra Dillon, sheds light on how NYSCA support is helping this cultural center flourish.

How would you describe Hudson Hall’s approach to presenting?

Housing New York State’s oldest surviving theater, Hudson Hall’s mission is to inspire and promote the arts and to play a pivotal role in the cultural and economic advancement of the region. Our approach to programming is to present a wide range of programs that reflect the spirit and culture of the City of Hudson, the region and its people. We respond to community needs and to the creative economy that is driving the region’s renaissance. We now serve more than 60,000 individuals and families annually through performances, exhibits, talks, large-scale community events, and free youth programs, the majority of which celebrate our local talent, history, and region.

We take great pride in working to serve every segment of our diverse population, and after building the trust of our community over two decades, we are unique in our ability to bridge the divide between Hudson’s underserved populations, the flourishing arts scene, sustainable agriculture movement, local residents, and more affluent second home owners. We strive to encompass this sense of history with cross-disciplinary programming and cross-pollination of audiences from all sectors.

 

In what ways do you strive to contribute to community revitalization? What have been some key successes in this area?

Since we began presenting programs in 1997, Hudson Hall has been at the center of Hudson’s recovery, offering free or low-cost events on and off site to serve the community, especially those most in need.

Hudson Hall was built in 1855 as City Hall at the height of the City’s importance as a port town. By the 1960s, Hudson was in steep decline, the building was abandoned and for more than 30 years the building sat vacant and decaying. During this time, many considered lower Warren Street to be a lost cause and several buildings of architectural and historical significance were demolished. In 1992, a group of local citizens banded together to save the historic building from destruction and return it to community use. Despite the years of vacancy, the building had retained its architectural integrity and was recognized as a critical component to the city’s revitalization. Since that time, Hudson Hall’s vision has been to bring the building back to life as a vibrant arts center providing outstanding cultural and educational events for the people of Hudson from all different backgrounds.

Winter Walk is one of our signature events. We began producing it in 1997 as a way to help bring foot traffic to the fledgling businesses beginning to populate Warren Street. In the early years, the event was called “A Winter Walk on Warren Street” and took place on just two blocks of the city’s mile-long main street. In its infancy, it was difficult to get people to move to more desolate blocks, but as business grew, Winter Walk grew with it.

Today, Winter Walk attracts 20,000 visitors and encompasses the entire mile-long stretch of our main street. The festival has become a crucial economic driver for the more than 300 participating businesses that rely on holiday sales. It also generates enormous social capital, bringing together diverse groups of people to mix, mingle and foster community pride.

How has your reconstruction, and the state’s support of the project, had an impact on Hudson Hall and its community?

In April 2017, we completed an $8.5 million capital project to restore our landmark theater, returning it to use for the first time in 55 years. The addition of an elevator tower makes the building fully accessible for the first time in its history. The capital project has returned the theater back to prominence, and has tripled our capacity to serve our community.

Before and after renovation of Hudson Hall
Before and after renovation of Hudson Hall performance space.  Photo by Robert Umenhofer

What were your goals in programming for the first season after restoration was completed? Are there particular programs or series that you consider to be especially good examples of the hall’s particular strengths?

The greatest challenge for Hudson Hall is to successfully preserve and enhance its tradition of community service while offering wider audiences an opportunity for artistic discovery. The reopening of the theater afforded us the opportunity to expand our programming and to present events in ways that were not possible prior to the restoration. With the restored theater, we were able to build upon our partnership with Hudson Jazzworks to develop and present the inaugural Hudson Jazz Festival, which was an enormous success and will become an annual event. Similarly, we were able to provide Operation Unite with a professional venue for its annual Kwanzaa Festival celebrating not just African American culture, but also the universal principles of community development important to us all. For the first time, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus was able to perform a real circus show complete with aerial acts in a hometown venue equipped with proper rigging points.

We are particularly proud of our production of The Mother of Us All, which marked the centenary of Women’s Suffrage thanks to support from New York State Council on the Arts. Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s 1947 opera is a tribute to the social reformer and women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony, who spoke on the stage at Hudson Hall in 1855, 1860 and 1898, in the very hall where this opera was performed.

Backstage at renovated Hudson Hall
Backstage at the renovated Hudson Hall performance space.  Photo by Robert Umenhofer

How does the new workforce development program tie into the hall’s mission? How many participants will there be, and how will the program benefit them and the hall?

Hudson Hall’s constituency draws from the residents of Hudson, Columbia County, and surrounding rural communities in the Upper Hudson Valley. Segments of this population are markedly constrained and limited in opportunities. In stark contrast to this reality, Hudson has undergone a significant revival and the wide variety of shops, galleries, restaurants, and cultural organizations are attracting a steady influx of visitors and second-home owners. These are the sectors driving the City’s economic revival, and Hudson Hall’s workforce development program was designed to provide Columbia County youth with the skills and knowledge they need to join Hudson's growing tourism, hospitality and retail sectors, as well as cultural organizations like our own.

Our first workforce development program concludes next week, and the three-week curriculum has covered a range of skills including communication, personal presentation, customer service and conflict resolution. Each participant has also been fully trained and certified in the Red Cross Basic First Aid and CPR programs. In addition to an opportunity to apply for a position at Hudson Hall, we are hosting a number of sessions to introduce them to local business owners. Even in this short space of time, we have seen a wonderful transformation in the kids. They are engaged, ambitious and have demonstrated an ability to learn and - better yet – they will be given an opportunity to put that learning into practice.

How do you cultivate diversity, equity and inclusion in your programming?

Our program is a direct reflection of our community, and we are fortunate to serve one of the most diverse cities in the Hudson Valley. As Hudson continues to attract new populations to the area, building community in a time of change is more important than ever. Over half of our budget supports free community programs designed to unite people from all backgrounds and perspectives and ensure equitable access to the rich and diverse cultural offerings that the city’s growth introduces.

How is free programming essential to the hall’s mission? How does the hall support these events? 

We offer hundreds of free programs year-round to serve our community. Our Community Arts Program engages youth and adults by connecting learning and creativity through in- and after-school programs, weekend workshops, family performances, and large-scale community events. Free exhibitions, talks, book readings, and performances are also offered on a weekly basis and attract a diverse constituent base. We provide free access to space to other nonprofits and community groups that enhance our own offerings.

What have been the most significant ways that NYSCA support has helped sustain and grow Hudson Hall over the years?

NYSCA is by far one of our largest and most steadfast funders. NYSCA’s support not only provides stability, thus providing program continuity, but ensures our long-term viability. NYSCA’s comprehensive approach to funding – GOS, POP and Capital – has been instrumental to our growth. NYSCA understands that providing this kind of holistic support is vital to the arts, and we are enormously grateful.

 

Cover Photo: Interior of Hudson Hall after renovation by Robert Umenhofer.