Ashley and Peter Swan came to Covington a year and a half ago to lead the Covington Regional Ballet to a new level. Now they have their sights sets a little higher as they hope to raise Covington's artistic community to new heights, and they're planning to do it in an unlikely place.
The Swans have ambitious plans to turn the Washington Street commercial corridor into an artist haven and visitor destination that could become the cultural heart of the county.
Having moved from Charleston, S.C., the Swans were used to a rich arts culture. However, the opportunity to direct a ballet company swayed them to move to Covington's small-town atmosphere. During the past year and a half, the couple has come to love Covington and they want to help it reach what they think is its full potential.
Living in the Porterdale Mill Lofts and commuting daily to the square, the couple has become familiar with the Washington Street corridor, and they've noted it's neither the most aesthetically pleasing place nor particularly pedestrian friendly.
Though plans are very much in the conceptual stage, the idea is to create an arts incubator program that will draw to Covington talented artists who, in exchange for the economic resources to pursue their craft full time, will also help beautify their community and host public events to draw attention to the area.
Initially, the arts incubator is to consist of six homes on Washington Street, provided by landowner and Porterdale business owner Jason Maddox. The homes would be provided to the artists free of charge. The couple is also hoping to find a building that could be used as a workspace and/or studio, which would also be provided free of charge.
Though Covington is not an artistic hotbed, Ashley Swan said the offer of free rent and workspace will be the key to attracting talented artists to the area. She said Covington is a good setting for artists because it's calm and conducive to the artistic process while also providing access to the amenities and inspiration of a large city like Atlanta.
"A lot of artists are either scraping by, if truly dedicated, or probably doing work that's not the most fulfilling to pay the bills," Ashley said. "Offering free live/work space where they'll be able to completely pursue whatever artistic endeavor they propose to us in exchange for community engagement, truly for an artist - and we are artists, and have gritted our teeth and gotten through it to pay the electric bill - its near impossible to turn down that opportunity when available."
While the benefit to the individual artists is clear, Ashley said there's just as much benefit for the community. Artists will be chosen based in part of what they plan to give back to the Covington community.
For example, a painter could design a larger mural to go on the side of a building, sketch out the mural and then invite members of the community to sign up to pain a section of the mural. Or a writer could craft a story and give a free, public dramatic reading. Or a group of artists could create pieces of art and hold a festival, inviting local business to share booths and gain exposure. The possibilities are many, but the key is that they help Covington, and its residents and businesses, prosper.
The Swans are going to form a selection committee of several community leaders to review artist's applications and pick the ones that they think will provide the greatest benefit to the county.
Several parties are already involved in making this ambitious revitalization project a reality, including Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston who spokes effusively about the project.
"I had the opportunity to meet the Swans and listen to their vision for Washington Street, and I have to say I was simply blown away," Johnston said at Monday's Covington City Council meeting. "They're vision, with our support, will start a process that will shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, region and it's all built around the arts."
Johnston said there are many examples where the arts have led the revitalization process in a city or neighborhood, and he the arts can do the same thing here. Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson, who has been instrumental in helping the Swans make connections, agreed about the potential of the project.
"It's a perfect opportunity to shed a new image for Washington Street, to create a new image for Washington Street., because, historically, artists have led these types of movements into areas that could be considered blighted or not worthy of development. Typically, artists are the leaders in getting that transformation started," Vinson said by phone Friday.
So far, the city council has only offered its verbal support for the project, but if the council agrees to sign on as a partner later, the project could then be eligible for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ashley said the project can proceed without the grant, because of the amount of community support already pledged, but the grant would be a big boost as well.
The next steps are to fix up the buildings, secure a building for workspace and/or a studio and continue to outline the program. The Swans are currently typing up the application for artists and garnering more support. For those interested in partnering with the project, they can email the Swans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams also urged the couple to speak to residents, businesses and church officials in the corridor, so that everyone is on the same page.
One person who is firmly behind the project, is the Swan's boss, Buncie Lanners, executive director of the Arts Association in Newton County.
Lanners said both Ashley and Peter are talented artists in multiple fields, as they've both danced professionally in ballet and contemporary dance. They also work with singers and Peter went to college on a saxophone scholarship.
"That shows why they would be interested in a project like this," Lanners said. "They know how the arts can revitalize an area."