History of The Arts in Tallahassee

Cooperation Strengthens Tallahassee’s Arts Organizations


There was a time in Tallahassee’s not-so-distant past when refrigerator displays of children’s artwork served as the only galleries in town, and the best musical performance most people got to see was their church’s choir singing on a Sunday. Thirty years ago, the building that houses The Moon was the A&P grocery store, the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra didn’t exist, and the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center hadn’t even broken ground.

Thanks to a number of dedicated artists, art lovers and government officials, the city has grown from a small town, known more for its football team and government ties than its dedication to the arts, into a vibrant mix of performing artists, musicians, painters and writers who color the city’s canvas, providing year-round opportunities for immersion in the arts.

Drawing from its resources as home to two universities and the state’s largest community college, as well as its position as the seat of state government, the city has successfully created a hybrid government/education/arts community that acknowledges each part as essential to the success of the whole. Over the past 30 years, the arts community evolved from disconnected camps of struggling local artists to a collective school of thought that works to ensure sustainability.


The Tie that Binds

Ask anyone in the know where to go for information about the city’s cultural offerings and you’ll hear an enthusiastic “Have you looked into COCA?” The former Tallahassee-Leon County Cultural Resources Commission became the Council on Culture & Arts, or COCA, in 1985 to better reflect its mission as a catalyst for the promotion of arts and culture in the Capital City. COCA, a nonprofit organization, works with local artists, arts educators and city officials to bring cohesion between the groups and provides a base for artists and art lovers to connect.

“COCA has done wonders for arts in the community,” said Carole Bernard, executive director of the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts. “Organizations are not in competition anymore. We realize that each has its own special niche and that when one succeeds, the others succeed.”

Peggy Brady, executive director of COCA, said she has seen a shift in people’s attitudes and acceptance of the arts over the past three decades.

“People are realizing that the arts are not separate but are part of the whole,” she said.

Brady pointed out a Pew study done 10 years ago that asked members of the community what they liked and disliked about living in Tallahassee.

“They all said what bothered them was that there was nothing to do,” she said. “We were shocked, because there is a ton to do in Tallahassee.”

Brady cites the study as a motivator in the arts community to get information about local events to the people.

“We found that a survey’s results tell you about perception and not necessarily reality,” she said. “Because the people didn’t have the information they needed, they thought that there was nothing out there.”

COCA now offers an assortment of resources that connect artists to their audience, including a networking Web site and magazine, making the idea of a disconnection between arts and community a thing of the past.


The Government Connection

When most people think about government, they think taxes and elections before arts advancement. Though it wasn’t always so, local government and the arts community now work hand in hand to ensure the future of the arts in Tallahassee.

“In the past, local government did not understand the benefit of having a thriving art scene in our town,” Brady said. “We’ve experienced periods of cuts in funding in the past, but local government officials have really stepped up to the plate both economically and educationally.”

By providing safely guarded grants to arts organizations, local government helps bring cohesion to the art world.

“The arts and culture community are much more a communicative body than they were in the past,” Brady said. “The grant program helped because they got us to understand that we all need help and that we are all in the same boat.”

LeMoyne’s Bernard agrees: “The days of operating in a silo are done in Tallahassee. People are collaborating more and putting their minds together to get the biggest bang for their buck.”

Lois Griffin, executive director of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, attributes government involvement in the arts directly to COCA’s efforts.

“Local government is more attuned to the arts in Tallahassee because of the local work that COCA has done,” she said. “I don’t know that the desire wasn’t there before, but the drive has certainly seemed to pick up.”

That drive can be attributed as much to economic incentives as cultural enrichment. The economic impacts the arts have on our community, from events such as COCA’s First Friday Gallery Hop, Florida State University’s Seven Days of Opening Nights arts festival and performances by the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, are nothing to scoff at.

Steve MacQueen, director of FSU’s Seven Days, said the event draws scores of people and their dollars into our city and provides “a boost to our economy as well as to the cultural climate.” Those extra dollars pad the pockets of local artists, vendors, hoteliers and business owners and filter back into the community throughout the year.

“We do an economic impact survey with every grant comparison we’re given,” Brady said. “They show that there is more attendance at cultural events throughout the year than at sports events.”

Perhaps the attendance is higher at year-round cultural events because sports events only happen during certain seasons, but crowds drawn to the arts are still impressively large. E’Layne Koenisberg, manager of the Railroad Square Art Park, said the First Friday Event alone draws more than 3,000 people into the downtown area.

“First Fridays draw a ton of people,” she said. “When we started the collaboration with COCA in 2000, we only had 500 to 600 visitors. Now we have well over 2,000, and it just keeps growing.”

Brady said growing crowds prove the worth of arts in our community.

“We are a Type A community, and we are a completely invested community,” she said. “We have a 50-year-old gallery (LeMoyne) here in town. That’s no white elephant. They’ve made it that long because the community supports them, and that support is validating.”


Speaking of LeMoyne … 

As the oldest and most well-known gallery in the city, LeMoyne stands as a testament to the desire for quality art venues in Tallahassee. Organized in 1963, the gallery was originally housed on the corner of Calhoun and Jefferson streets in what was once the home of the Deeb family. The gallery moved to its new location at 125 N. Gadsden St. in 1968, after the building it was housed in was slated for demolition. Ever the artist, then-director Dick Puckett saved remnants from the wreckage of the original building and had a gazebo built from it that still stands in the gallery’s sculpture garden.

LeMoyne, like any gallery, has experienced ups and downs over the years, but the community’s love for the gallery has kept it thriving.

“People love LeMoyne,” Bernard said. “I go to other galleries that are struggling just to get people interested, but
LeMoyne has loyal patrons and people who really care.”

As LeMoyne’s new executive director, Bernard has her work cut out for her. The gallery is facing a financial crunch,
requiring it to sell off the education complex, and has had trouble reaching a younger demographic.

Puckett, who served as director of the gallery for a combined 20 years, said that while he is saddened at the potential loss of the education complex, he has faith in LeMoyne’s board and continues to have high hopes for the gallery’s future.

“I’m hoping desperately that someone will buy the building and then give it back to LeMoyne as a tax write-off,” he said. “It would be such a shame to lose it, but times are tough. I have to believe that the board has thought long and hard about what they’re doing and that it’s best in the long run.”

Bernard also mourns the potential loss of the education complex, a set of converted townhomes where the organization’s classes are held, but recognizes that steps must be taken in order to ensure the building’s sustainability into the future.

“We know how important the Arts Education complex is to the community, but we are in transition,” she said. “Different approaches apply to different times.”

In terms of reaching a younger demographic, Bernard plans to bring in edgier artwork than the gallery has carried in the past and extend the length of shows to accommodate the busy schedules of young people.

“We plan to use due diligence for the next 40 years to keep LeMoyne up and running,” she said. “We will be more strategic in our choices to ensure that we are meeting the community’s needs and giving them what they want.”


A Musical Landmark for 25-Plus Years

When The Moon opened in 1985 as the area’s first and only multi-genre facility, people placed bets on how long it would last.

“People thought there was no way we’d succeed. They thought we’d have to specialize,” said Scott Carswell, president of Moon Management Inc. “No one thought that you could provide a great performance space that would appeal to all audiences, but we’ve done it.”

After more than a quarter-century in the business, Carswell knows a thing or two about what works for his venue, noting that other performance spaces around town cater more to drinkers than to music enthusiasts.

“We never marketed to be alcohol first and entertainment second, and that’s really helped us,” Carswell said. “Our bars are designed so that you don’t see the alcohol because we wanted the entertainment to be the most important thing. Sure, you can get a beer if you want, but that’s never been the goal of the place.” Carswell said that by not highlighting the bar, people end up coming to The Moon primarily for the music, which has been a key factor in its success.

The building’s design is what Carswell refers to as its “saving grace.” The bones of the structure have not been changed since opening, aside from standard maintenance. Carswell and his staff, whom he “can’t live without,” strive to keep the venue neutral so events of all kinds can be held there seamlessly.

“We got it right the first time,” he said.

Over the past 25 years, The Moon’s stage has been host to big names such as Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, George Clinton and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Carswell said the biggest shift he has seen in the music scene has been in terms of technology. From the development of new computer-generated sounds to online promotion and the rise of video, he said technology has reshaped the face of music.

“All sounds are different than what you would have heard 20 years ago,” Carswell said. “Keyboards in the early days of synthesizers could only do so much, but now there’s an array of sounds that they can make, and you can get so much more flavor with the newer technology. Because of that, people today have grown up hearing sounds coming from keyboards that in the past were never heard before.”

Carswell also noted the heavy use of bass in newer music.

“Bass in the music, in all genres, is now so prominent,” Carswell said. “It used to not be because the speakers and amps couldn’t produce it, but now it’s not just hip-hop – it’s crossed into all styles of music.”

In terms of the future, Carswell has a laid-back attitude.

“We’ll just keep on keeping on,” he said. “We are fortunate to have lasted this long. We have people come in that say that they met at The Moon and have been married for years and now their grandkids come here. To be kicking for that long means we’re doing something right.”


Looking Ahead

As local arts enthusiasts continue their work into the future, Tallahassee residents can look forward to seeing the landscape of arts in the city grow and change. Demolition of the Johns Building downtown brings the city one step closer to construction of the Florida Center for Performing Arts, a decades-long dream in the making for some residents. Hopes for the center’s future include a multi-purpose theater that can seat 650 and a performance hall with 2,200 seats.

Residents also can look forward to the second anniversary of the Tallahassee Film Festival, an event that, in its first year,
rivaled those held in Jacksonville and Miami. This year’s festival, supported by Florida Commerce Credit Union, will run April 15-19, three weeks earlier than in 2008, to better fit with students’ schedules and reach a broader audience. With the support of Florida Commerce Credit Union, festival organizers hope to trump their debut by
offering extended screenings and educational events.

The Gaines Street Corridor, too, will see vast changes. COCA’s Arts Exchange project, made possible in part by a $375,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, will provide permanent housing for the Tallahassee Ballet and the Tallahassee Boys Choir, as well as artist’s lofts, a creative work center, retail space and multiple rehearsal spaces. The Arts Exchange, slated for construction in 2010, will also house new COCA offices and provide a village-like artists’ atmosphere with pedestrian spaces and biking.

Janet Pichard, executive director of the Tallahassee Ballet, said the Arts Exchange project will provide much-needed rehearsal space, dressing rooms and costume storage for the ballet.

“We are bursting at the seams,” she said.

FSU’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium is also getting a facelift. The building’s renovations, set for completion in fall 2010, will include a new and larger lobby, advancements to acoustic architecture, a new rehearsal hall and more-accessible handicap parking.

COCA’s Brady said the future success of the arts in Tallahassee has a lot to do with how invested the community is.

“Tallahassee has an assortment of groups with which people can be an active participant in the arts, not just an observer of them, and that’s incredibly unique,” she said.

It seems that the success of the arts in Tallahassee is bound only by the imagination of the city’s creative masses.


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