Black Mountain College Mania!

Black. Mountain. College. It seems to be everywhere lately!

Over at the Swannanoa Valley Museum, visitors are always asking about Black Mountain College. Where was it? What was it? Do we have an exhibit? Can I still go there? I’m here, right here and right now to answer a few of those questions and point you in the direction of experts. (Thankfully, being so darn close to the former campus we’ve got a few of those hanging around here!)

First of all, let’s answer the basics. Black Mountain College was, you guessed it, located in beautiful Black Mountain, North Carolina. If you have ever been to LEAF or went to Camp Rockmont as a kid, you’ve been on the Campus of Black Mountain College. The school was started in 1933 and came to fruition as a result of various factors. These included but weren’t limited to the founder’s (John A. Rice) controversial departure from another College and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany which resulted in the closure of the Bauhaus. Ultimately, a school partially funded by the precursor to the Works Progress Administration and that operated under John Dewey’s principles of progressive education was conceived in the mountains of western North Carolina.

This short video gives a fabulous overview of the school, and it impacts on 20th-century art:

The school was a hotbed of progressivism in the primarily conservative mountains. Many people in the Black Mountain community saw the students as communists and beatniks. They were uncomfortable with the liberal ideas circulating at the school, and the students’ experimental modern art didn’t exactly excite them or attract their interest.  Since about the 1980’s however, Asheville and the surrounding area, Black Mountain included, tends to see itself in a different light. That may be due in part to institutions like Black Mountain College. Buncombe County has a vibrant arts scene, and now sometimes takes a satirical pride in its unofficial title, “Cesspool of Sin.”

This history has, of course always been here, but within the past few years or so, there has been increasing interest in the Asheville area, and I believe, not coincidentally, Black Mountain College. It seems as more folks make their way back and forth into Asheville from other cities with vibrant art scenes BMC is making a comeback. I’m here to help it along by connecting you with some great institutions and people to help begin your journey into the Bauhaus wonderland that is and was all things Black Mountain College.

If you live in the Asheville area or you’re visiting and want to learn more about Black Mountain College whether it’s just for fun or serious research, there are several great institutions with a myriad of resources who host events almost all year.

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center; 56 Broadway Street, Asheville, NC 28801

From the BMCM+AC website, “The [BMCM+AC] preserves and continues the legacy of educational and artistic innovation of Black Mountain College. We achieve our mission through collection, conservation, and educational activities including exhibitions, publications, and public programs.”logoblackmountaincollegemuseumweb2

Some of the museums major public programs include the {Re}Happening and partnership with other institutions like UNC Asheville for the ReViewing Annual Conference, but events are happening all the time, so be sure to check out their events page for more! The museum’s most recent exhibition opened only a few days ago and features the art of Zola Marcus, an abstract painter, who attended the 1953 Summer Institute at BMC.

North Carolina State Archives, Western Branch; 176 Riceville Road, Asheville, NC 28805

The Western branch of the North Carolina State Archives is home to a wealth of resources concerning BMC. Heather South, the Archivist, has been a significant help to a number of BMC scholars from around the world and is a co-author of a short pictorial history of the school. If you need to find a source on Black Mountain College, Heather is one of your go-to gals. Plus, don’t miss the chance to visit the building that houses these documents near the VA medical center, it’s a restored nurse’s dorm from the WWI era.

svmhc-logo-colorSwannanoa Valley Museum & History Center; 223 W. State Street, Black Mountain, NC 28711

Full Disclosure: I work here.

But it is nonetheless a great place to see some cool things about Black Mountain College and to have a chance to spy part of the campus. The museum itself has a permanent exhibit, and the fantastic director, Anne Chesky-Smith, is the other co-author of the pictorial history of the school with Heather South. Coming in 2018 we will have a large BMC exhibit in our temporary gallery coming to us from Appalachian State University. Although SVM doesn’t have much in the way of art, (the BMCM+AC is the place to go for that!) the museum is famous for its hikes, one of which begins the former BMC campus.
There are also museum members who had parents who taught at the school or were close to students or faculty. If you are looking for oral histories, you may want to get in touch!

Finally, the collegiate institutions surrounding Asheville have been active in carrying on the legacy of Black Mountain College through their curriculum and cultural events calendars. During my time as an undergraduate at UNC Asheville, I attended no fewer than three separate required lectures that had something to do with BMC, and there were always cultural events related to the school happening for some reason or another. UNC Asheville, as I mentioned before, is the co-sponsor of the ReViewing Black Mountain College Annual Conference with the BMCM+AC and has as of this year hired its very first Black Mountain College Legacy Research Fellow. The exhibit coming to the Swannanoa einstien_bmcValley Museum will be from Appalachian State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies’ new project that is currently in the works with the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts (also at ASU). And I can’t forget tot mention Warren Wilson College which carries on the legacy of BMC in a variety of ways, including their emphasis on a liberal arts education.

Be sure to support these institutions if you can. (Promise I’m not just saying that because I work at one of them). Like Einstien wrote in his letter 63 years ago, I believe that smaller
institutions of learning ought to be favored in every possible way. Including libraries, museums, and archives. They provide us with an incredible resource we can carry on into our future. And please keep in mind this is by no means an exhaustive list of resources or literature. As you can see, the interest in this little school just keeps growing. So keep an eye out for all kinds of Black Mountain College news, events, stories and history from outlets from the Mountain Xpress to StoryCorps to your favorite local bookseller.

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