October 1, 2008

N.C. School’s Spirit Lives / Black Mountain College Closed 50 Years Ago, but Its Innovations Reverberate

Starting in the 1930s, a small, experimental college on the dense wood slopes of North Carolina's western mountains left an outsized mark on American art and culture. Black Mountain College's model of holistic learning and communal work was ahead of its time - it helped train a generation of artists and artisans, from poets to painters. Maybe too far ahead of its time, as the college closed more than 50 years ago in dire financial straits, after multiple faculty conflicts. But the school is still celebrated for its attempt to reform higher education in the United States, and it will be remembered this weekend in Hickory during "The Spirit of Black Mountain College 75th Anniversary."

"The college is still a living force," said Mary Emma Harris, a scholar who studied the school and wrote "The Arts at Black Mountain College."

The weekend celebration will feature poetry readings, musical and dance performances and an art show where Black Mountain College- inspired work will be displayed, said Margaret Allen, a spokeswoman for Lenoir-Rhyne University, which is hosting the anniversary events with the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

Lenoir-Rhyne also plans to establish a Black Mountain College Summer Institute next year as a series of one-week lectures, performances and workshops related to the arts.

Black Mountain College opened its doors in Asheville in 1933, testing limits in education, art and society as students and faculty worked together to cultivate everything from minds to food. There were no bells that rang when classes ended. Students didn't get report cards with A's or F's.

"Students had to take charge of their own education, and that was totally the opposite of most colleges in that era," Allen said.

It was founded by classics professor John Andrew Rice, who had been fired from Rollins College in Florida. He took several colleagues and some promising students with him and opened the school.

At first, the entire campus was inside a YMCA building. Later the faculty and students built cabins on a farm that everyone worked on. People living in the area thought "it was a nest of communist and homosexuals," said alumnus and author Michael Rumaker.

At a time when racial segregation was the law, two blacks taught there in 1945, and by 1947, five black students were enrolled.

The college hosted notable teachers and students, including writer Charles Olson, composer John Cage, architect Buckminster Fuller, dancer Merce Cunningham and poet Robert Creeley. The recently deceased painter Robert Rauschenberg was one of its most famous students.

Fewer than 1,200 students ever attended the school, and about 60 graduated. Many attended briefly for summer courses.

Teachers and students made all decisions together democratically, Harris said. And emphasizing arts in the school's curriculum helped break learned patterns and ways of thinking.

"The true artist was the person in any profession who approaches his work with skill, imagination and passion," she said.

The college closed in 1956 because of financial problems. Many of the college's problems stemmed from the idealists having different ideas, Harris said. Teachers had a share in the school's ownership as part of their compensation. There was no outside oversight, and the college was never accredited.

"The greatest downfall was the perennial conflict that ended with one group leaving and one group staying," Harris said. "With each dismemberment of the college, it was diminished."

She added: "The strength of the college was its greatest weakness."


Originally published by The Associated Press.

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