Our Town: Stone Mountain

Most Atlantans think of the park when they hear Stone Mountain. But last October, the city at the base of the famous hunk of granite deployed a corps of struggling artists to throw some color into the downtown village, with the hope their work will move the community out of the mountain’s shadow.

The micro-enterprise program, called The Stone Mountain Arts Incubator, or SMart Inc., plants working artists downtown in studios. The city charges the artists $50 a month for the lease and picks up the rest of the bill along with all the utilities and insurance. In exchange, the tenants are required to stay open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., attend two business workshops per month and toss 30 percent of the proceeds from art they sell back into the city’s pot.

The twice-monthly workshops guide the small group through the business side of art and include instruction on marketing via social media, conducting inventories and how to pay sales tax.

“It feels like a graduate program,” said Susan Ryles, who earned a BFA from SCAD in sculpture in 2009 after working for BellSouth for 28 years. She works alongside another artist, Angela Williams, doing clay and mixed media in the studio at 977 Main Street. Currently five artists are at work in two studios, and two other spaces are under construction. Four months from now, the city expects to be supporting eight working artists in various media, including culinary arts that will feature a pannini and wine bar.

The artists display and sell their pieces in the front of the buildings. The back of the space is split into studios where visitors can observe the work as it’s crafted, meet the artists and ask questions.

“We’re amazed at the traffic the program brings and the work that’s being created,” said ART Station founder and program manager David Thomas. The program won an Atlanta Regional Commission CREATE Award for Regional Prosperity and Economic Development in February.

“We thought we’d get artists who’d just finished their degree and wanted to use this experience as a stepping stone. We’re finding people who’ve always wanted to be artists after leaving the corporate world and don’t mind the hours.”

Thomas helped establish the little town as an arts enclave in 1987 when he and a group of colleagues would eventually raise $3.5 million to rehab the building downtown where power was generated that ran trolleys between Stone Mountain and Atlanta.

Inspired by similar development tactics that “incubate” artists, Thomas and city and county government saw a smaller scale version of projects like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., could help bring interest and a sense of identity to the area.

“The village was a huge destination for arts and crafts and it remained that way until the Olympics were over,” Thomas said.

“I was trying to figure out what to do when I’d see people come here to see our theater performances and gallery shows then head home afterward. I want them to walk out the door and see more. We work collaboratively, not competitively. The philosophy is the more art, the better."