At the Site of Black Mountain College, a New Residency Program Aims to Continue Its Legacy
Almost six decades after the closure of Black Mountain College, a new interdisciplinary residency returns to the original site, asking participants to once again re-imagine arts education.
When people think “art world,” some conjure images of the white walls of Chelsea galleries, the thud of an auctioneer’s gavel at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, or the cacophony of chattering voices heard at art fairs. Rarely does a little town just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, come to mind—at least among those in the world’s art centers. And perhaps that’s exactly why it was there, at Black Mountain College, that 83 years ago a new set of profoundly influential ideas about arts education began to germinate. Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage—the names of the instructors and students who emerged from the school are now legendary. But back then, no one knew the college would usher in a new order, creating an egalitarian climate for education in which the line between student and teacher was blurred.
The original Black Mountain College arose from the historical conditions of the 1930s and ’40s. Now, almost six decades after it closed, a new artists’ residency—spurred by the cost of arts education and the desire to present an alternative—is currently in the midst of its inaugural year at the site of the original school. Known as Black Mountain School (BMS), the program positions itself as aligned with its predecessor. “Initially I thought, wow,” Miguel Mendias, a student, told me of first hearing about the idea. “That’s really ambitious… good luck with that. But I was immediately interested.” We were speaking by phone, Mendias from North Carolina where he was one of some 30 students participating in the first two-week semester at the new school. This year, there are two such sessions, each costing $800 to attend. (Affordability is a key underpinning to the endeavor, so financial aid is being offered.)
The idea for BMS arose with Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan, two artists local to Black Mountain. In 2015, a group gathered at the school’s Lake Eden campus to develop a mission and framework for the school. “Following in the tradition of Black Mountain College but saying you want to build a new avant garde is really problematic,” said Alexander Chaparro, who was involved in developing those early philosophies and taught in the school’s first session. “You also don’t want to seem like you are coming off as this big salvation, this big alternative that wasn’t there before, without taking into consideration all the other initiatives out there.”
Returning to Black Mountain isn’t a gimmick, but a carefully considered strategy for artistic development. Providing a retreat from the traditional spaces of the art world (galleries, museums, even MFA programs), the residency allows its participants to form connections with people they wouldn’t otherwise have met. “Everybody is incredibly open and willing to engage with each other,” says Mendias. “It feels very different from when I’m out in the world. I could have met these people [elsewhere] and I don’t think we would have had the same sense of connection.” One of the school’s projects is to offer a more fluid and communal experience, in contrast to the commercial emphasis of the art world at large and the conventional doctrines of MFA programs. “I think a lot of people are responding to that,” Celie Dailey, a faculty member at the school, told me. “I think that’s why a lot of people have a DIY spirit. I think that’s a point of connection with Black Mountain College.”
Classes at the school range from theoretical and text-based to hands-on and outdoors. There are no academic prerequisites for enrolling as a student, and those participating will also have the opportunity to teach if so desired. Students and guest lecturers at BMS are young and old, and come from within institutions (such as Wendy Woon from the Museum of Modern Art) and outside of them. Many I talked with stressed that such binaries aren’t relevant or noticeable at the school, at least partially thanks to the non-hierarchical structure of the program. Drawing on the original Black Mountain College, students help with different administrative tasks, while staff are free to take classes. When Chaparro and I spoke, he had just returned from a long night of Andrew H. Shirley’s “Relinquishing Self” course. (I asked for details but Chaparro “took a vow of secrecy.”)
One class that Velveteen—a woman who manages the kitchen—found time to take was Dailey’s “Natural and Cultural History of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains,” in which students explore the rich geography and ecology of Appalachia from aesthetic and political perspectives (discussing land management, for example). The course is one example of how BMS aims to be interdisciplinary in ways that go beyond simply mashing up what are traditionally recognized as different forms of art and culture. “A lot of artists have a visual practice, and plant identification is about looking for patterns and similarities,” Dailey told me. “For a lot of artists, their practice is really centered on personal identity—in no way am I discounting that—but it’s really enlightening to see this hugely complex and fascinating world that is outside of you.”
Much has been made about whether or not Black Mountain School can live up to the influence of Black Mountain College. But, just as the college of decades ago and the school of today outlined alternative methods for arts education, perhaps we should find alternative ways to gauge its success. Whether or not the next Rauschenberg walks out of BMS, the project demonstrates that sometimes one needs to step outside of traditional academic settings in order to reinvent them.