BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE MUSEUM AND ARTS CENTER Review— Preserving a Cauldron of Creativity

Asheville North Carolina
Historic postcard showing Black Mountain College Image from wikimedia-- public domain.
Asheville North Carolina
Entrance to Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in downtown Asheville NC Photo courtesy of Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center

We walk into the unassuming storefront entrance of the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center and are greeted by a form within a form metal sculpture that feels familiar. It is a sculpture by Ruth Asawa, a one-time art student at Black Mountain College before it was shuttered in 1957.  

If you know even a tad about Black Mountain College, the  museum’s portal seems disproportionately small relative to its import.  For example, one would be hard pressed to find a serious choreographer today who has not been touched or even moulded by one-time Black Mountain College denizen Merce Cunningham.  This initial feeling that the museum should instead have the type of oversized grand doors you see at any Paris Musée was perhaps magnified by the happenings when we arrived.  All was relative chaos as Sō Percussion and the museum staff did a wild scramble to get the usual exhibit space pushed aside and readied for the 100+ audience that evening.

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The museum is in happy chaos as it prepares for the Sō Percussion tribute performance to Black Mountain College professor John Cage

The exhibit past the foyer entrance showcased the work of Vera B. Williams, who had studied closely with Josef Albers and went on to become both a children’s book illustrator, the design force of Liberation magazine, a close friend and one-time housemate of John Cage, and a political activist of some renown in New York City.  We later learned from this exhibit that the magazine Williams helped curate, Liberation, had among its many credits being the journal that first published Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. 

BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE MUSEUM Spotlights a Unique Moment in America’s Art Scene

From this writer’s perspective, the Vera B. Williams exhibit is an even better window to the creative force of Black Mountain College than the many big names equated with the school such as Josef and Anni Albers, William de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, and more.  Williams’ was a force for the arts in her own right— the founder of an artists’ cooperative in New York City that touched many generations in addition to being a champion of children’s books that speak to children of all classes and circumstances.  

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Vera Williams being arrested at an Anti-War protest
MCA Merce Cunningham
Choregrapher Merce Cunningham Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
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Museum Outreach Coordinator and Tour Guide Kira Houston
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"Large Pitcher and Fruit" by Black Mountain Collegealumnus Joseph Fiore-- in a solo focus exhibit of his work simultaneous with the Vera B. Williams exhibit
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Josef Albers brought many from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College. This is one of his many works that point to his seminal influence on use of color by generations of artists to come
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Hallway photo showing costumes used in performances of avant garde theater introduced by Bauhaus transplant Xanti Schawinsky
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The hallway gallery in the museum shows a few images of Buckminster Fuller's first geodesic domes, or attempts at such

The small and rotating exhibits and performances at the museum are a small part of what it delivers to the world.  Beyond the exhibit doors you find a research library and book shop.  The halls of the museum are lined with archival images of Black Mountain College back in the day.  They are worth a good half hour’s linger in their own right.  Other than the months when the former college’s facilities are used as a summer camp, the museum staff also gives tours of the college. The museum also makes its thousands of art pieces, objects and other collectibles in its possession available online at the Black Mountain College Museum website.  

During a tour of the museum you learn how the school’s commitment to democracy proved to be an impractical and unsustainable model such that it closed doors in 1957. We left the museum pondering what the Black Mountain College equivalent is today—high profile art schools? Arts incubators? Arts fellowships? Or???  Somehow today’s Yaddo-like retreats are difficult to imagine as Black Mountain College 2.0.  

Selected images from the museum's collections are from the online catalog.

Slider photos of museum exhibit halls courtesy of Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

All other photos are by Peter Kachergis from exhibit images or as otherwise captioned.


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