Tallahassee artists hit hard by tornadoes plan to rebuild


With theaters decimated, galleries destroyed, equipment destroyed and shows canceled by the May 10 tornadoes, Tallahassee artists and arts organizations need your help.

Winding through the dawn

There is nothing more beautiful than the morning hours. Art spaces have an enchanting aura during this time. From the beam of light reflecting off a glass sculpture at dawn to the gentle fading of ghost light into the shadows of morning, the space that houses art shapes those who fill it.

These buildings serve as vessels for art that ranges from individual experience to collective sharing. On May 10, this delicate balance of fantasy and fact was shattered by very real tornadoes.

Within 36 minutes, two separate tornadoes, both an EF-2 moving southeast at 115 miles per hour, raced through the city and converged within about a mile radius over the heart of Tallahassee's Railroad Square Art District. And by the grace of Dionysis, no one was there.

“Fortunately, the storm occurred early in the morning and outside of our operating hours,” said Josh Johnson, President/CEO of 621 Gallery. “All of our employees, interns and volunteers were off-site.”

Art continues: Rethink or rebuild? A look into the future at Railroad Square after tornadoes

Just days earlier, arts organizations across Tallahassee were in turmoil. The Southern Shakespeare Company had opened its free outdoor show “The Winter's Tale” on the stage of the Adderley Amphitheater in Cascades Park.

In the Railroad Square Art District, Able Artists Gallery showcased the talents of people with autism and neurodiversity in the Artcase Motivating People Through Arts & Culture.

Right next door on the Amtrak campus, the independent film “Slow,” presented by the Tallahassee Film Society, premiered at the All Saints Cinema.

The popular Faustkateers from the Mickee Faust theater group rehearsed for their 17th summer cabaret “Queer As Faust”. Across the street, the 50-year-old nonprofit contemporary art gallery, 621 Gallery, hosted a monthly open studio for local artists to create, share and re-create.

The lingering reverberations of musicians pumping out melodies of glorious madness while street dancers moved joyfully over the recent First Friday at Railroad Square were still felt. But on this stormy Friday, those memories were replaced by the devastation to which every artistic organization awoke.

To use: Railroad Square fundraiser to be held Saturday in downtown Tallahassee | Brew Bend

The damage is done

Cultural workers are shocked by the destruction left behind by the storm.

“I was home at the time of the storm,” says John Fraser of the Tallahassee Film Society.

Mickee Faust's artistic director, Terry Galloway, reflects Fraser's experience. She was “in the hallway of my South Meridian home, crouched with my wife and our two cats.” Others had already left for work and found out on social media.

“I was sitting in a classroom with students when I started receiving dozens of text messages about photos/videos on social media,” Johnson said. “The footage showed utter devastation. All our livelihoods, passions, projects and organizations – literally reduced to rubble.”

Aerial photos from Railroad Square confirmed that roofs were torn off several buildings as easily as a Band-Aid from a child's knee. But as is often the case with natural disasters in Florida, the rain was the real damage. Hours after the initial impact, the rain flooded the now open art facilities and outdoor stages.

Southern Shakespeare's set was soaked and withered, as was Florida State University's Flying High circus tent. “The damage was extensive and it appears that all of the fabric and steelwork will need to be replaced,” director Chad Mathews shared in The Flying High Circus’ Facebook post.

The tragedy reveals ruined costumes, destroyed irreplaceable works of art, and countless props and equipment. Venues are facing a massive loss of technological equipment scattered across their premises.

The All Saints Cinema, one of the few venues in the city that shows independent films, documentaries and foreign films, “does not know the extent of the damage to all the equipment inside but expects it will be completely useless said John Fraser, president of the Tallahassee Film Society.

For some, the greatest loss lies not in the buildings themselves, but in what they represent: years of grant-making, volunteer work and love, and a place to call home, held by these Tallahassee artists and patrons for decades was maintained.

“Our home for 27 of our 37 years of existence is gone, baby, gone,” Galloway shares. “We loved our performance community area. It was magical.”

A new path forward

Theater historian Alison Findlay argues that the performance space is both a “representation of space” and a “space of representation.” So when you erase your artistic home, you feel like you've been erased from existence.

Yet any artist can tell you that we are resilient and not easily disposed of. Although the damage is enormous and the future of these spaces remains uncertain, the consensus of all organizations seems to be the same: rebuild and renovate. “The extent of the damage to our buildings is no greater than the will and spirit of the district’s tenants,” Johnson said. “The arts are here to stay.”

What's next? First of all, let's take a deep, collective breath of gratitude that, barring a fatality on our minds, we are safe and alive. Next, other arts venues whose location north of the tornadoes spared them opened their hearts and venues to those affected.

The Blue Tavern was without power for a day but was unscathed. They plan to host a benefit show with food and live music to raise money for disaster relief.

LeMoyne Arts has reached out through COCA to offer venue support to individuals or organizations that lost their spaces in the storm and need a place to host events or continue their creative work. “Our thoughts are with those whose properties and businesses were damaged by last week’s storm,” said Board Chair Kelly Dozier. “We will do what we can to help the creative community get through this crisis and emerge stronger.”

And local artist Lindsey Masterson generously donates art materials. How can you help? Attend an exhibit, purchase art, donate, host a displaced artist or organization, volunteer, provide in-kind support, and support artists and arts organizations affected by the storm in any way you can.

With your help, the show will go on, as will the vibrant arts scene that makes Tallahassee the unique, creative and popular center of the Capital Region.

Dr. Christy Rodriguez de Conte is the features writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the umbrella agency for arts and culture in the Capital Region (

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