Black Mountain College – A History

Friday, July 15, 2016

by Jason T. Perry

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A mid-20th century photograph by Hazel Larsen Archer of a building on the campus of Black Mountain College.

Some are surprised to learn that Western North Carolina was home to one of the most influential cultural hubs of the 20th century. In 1933 an experimental college was built near the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina; it opened with 21 students and a mission to balance academics, arts and manual labor within a democratic society. The small school’s anti-traditional approach to education quickly transformed this quiet and unknown area of the country into a hot spot of American culture. Although the college was open for only 24 years, it has left a powerful mark on modern education, art, music and culture.

Black Mountain College (BMC) was founded by scholar John A. Rice. Rice took John Dewey’s principle of progressive approach to teaching – personal experience is more important to learning than the memorization of facts. With this in mind, Rice created an environment that placed equal weight on academia, the arts and manual labor in an environment of extreme democracy. Therefore, all members of the College community participated in its operation, including farm work, construction projects and kitchen duty.

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Clemens Kalischer, Merce Cunningham Teaching at Black Mountain College, 1948, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 14.00 x 11 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by 2007 Collectors’ Circle Member Rob Pulleyn. Permanent Collection. 2007.34.02.91.

During War World II, Black Mountain College became a safe haven for European artist trying to escape Nazi Germany. After the closing of the Bauhaus, BMC attracted artists Josef and Anni Albers who were hired as some of the first art professors. Their progressive work in painting and textiles quickly drew in students from all over the country. The secluded Western North Carolina mountains formed a creative environment that reflected the College’s communal living and informal class structure. Black Mountain College’s cross-genre arts education would influence the programs of many major American institutions.

Theartstory.org quotes BMC student Kenneth Noland on his experience at the school:

“. . . it really became kind of recognized [at BMC] that art could be anything, and could be made out of anything, and that it didn’t necessarily cross boundaries,” said Noland. “They thought between theater, the visual arts, dance, music, etc., that you could mix all this up and make a multi-media or . . . environmental art.”

Black Mountain College reached its peak in the 1940s. The school had an impressive board of directors that included William Carlos Williams and Albert Einstein. Many great artists and influential thinkers attended the College, including Walter Gropius, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Alfred Kazin, Merce Cunningham and Paul Goodman. Inventive projects at Black Mountain College included John Cage’s “The Happenings,” Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, and Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome. 

By the 1950s, the buzz of Black Mountain College began to fade. Faculty could not agree on the future of the College, creating tension within the community.  Josef and Anni Albers left and many students and faculty moved to New York or San Francisco. Eventually the disagreements and mounting debt caught up to the school, and Black Mountain College shut down in 1957. Although the lifespan of the school was relatively brief, the school proved how effective experimental education and creativity can be.


 

The Asheville Art Museum is proud to have the works of many Black Mountain College artists in its Permanent Collection. The Museum is excited to be presenting a new exhibition opening August 5, 2016 that focuses on landscapes created by Black Mountain College students.