Black Mountain College was an independent, co-educational liberal arts college in North Carolina, founded in 1933 by scholars John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Frederick Georgia, and Ralph Lounsbury. The school was created as an experiment of “education in a democracy,” through the idea that practical responsibilities and learning were of equal importance to the development of artistic intellect. Throughout its years in operation, thousands of students and faculty passed through its doors, many of whom were, or went on to become, some of the most influential names in the history of literary, performing, and visual art.
The school was conceptualized and built around American philosopher John Dewey’s principles of progressive education, which emphasized an interdisciplinary curriculum and the study of art as a central component of a liberal arts education. The school’s non-hierarchical structure awarded students and educators the same level of importance, while focusing more attention on the balancing of education, art, and cooperative labor, such as farm work, construction projects, cleaning, and kitchen duty.
This unique approach to teaching put emphasis on personal experiences and self-learning over excessive delivered knowledge, and was thought to foster decision-making, which the founders believed to be a foundational skill of a democratic society. Furthermore, Black Mountain College had minimal grading and no tests, and awarded students the opportunity to design their own, well-rounded course curriculum, making it an attractive playground for artists, writers, educators, and perspective students from around the world.
The founding of Black Mountain College occurred at one of the most turbulent sociopolitical periods in world history. The United States was still dealing with the aftermath of the Great Depression while Europe was suffering with the horrific rise of the Nazi regime. After the mandatory closing of the Bauhaus School in Germany in 1933, and the subsequent persecution of artists and intellectuals throughout Western Europe, Black Mountain College became a haven for artists seeking refuge. One such example was painter and educator Josef Albers, who was hired to run the school’s art program, while his wife, Annie, taught weaving and textile design.
Upon the arrival of artists from Europe, Black Mountain College quickly became known as an incubator for artistic talent – specifically in the context of the American avant-garde – and continued to flourish throughout the 1930s and 40s. With hundreds of students enrolled at the turn of the decade, the school established a new permanent site in 1941 featuring structures designed and built by the faculty and students, such as the Jalowets Cottage, Minimum House, and Cabin 24/25; this cluster of buildings later became considered one of the foremost collections of International Style architecture in America.
Furthermore, the enlarged campus played host to a number of groundbreaking events, such as the first large-scale geodesic dome constructed by faculty member Buckminster Fuller and his students, as well as the founding of Merce Cunningham’s dance company, and the first musical performance by American composer John Cage.
Despite fostering some of the 20th century’s most notable talents, such as architect Walter Gropius and poet Charles Olson, as well as American artists Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, Black Mountain College sadly closed its doors in 1957 due to lack of funding.
Nonetheless, its historic impact is no less palpable. The school’s legacy is remembered today in Asheville, North Carolina, where the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center was erected in 1993, which holds the school’s expansive archive and continues to honor the college’s legacy through curated exhibitions, lecture series, and academic conferences.