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‘Connecting Legacies’: New art exhibit shines light on Black Mountain College

Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Bubba’s Sister from the Ruminations.’ Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Bubba’s Sister from the Ruminations.’

From 1933-1957, Black Mountain College was formed and thrived within the context of its seemingly unconventional methods and ways, only to simply disappear — into the history books of the town it was named after, into the fond memories of those who passed through the magical space along their respective paths in life. 

“There’s been a bit of a Renaissance in the last 15-20 years in the interest in the history of Black Mountain College,” said Hilary Schroeder, assistant curator at the Asheville Art Museum. 

Leaps and bounds ahead of its time, even by many of today’s academic standards, the experimental liberal arts institution was a haven for cutting edge artists and the curious alike from around the country — complete creative and spiritual freedom to be “you” and “me,” right in the heart of Western North Carolina. 

“[Black Mountain College] is only just now starting to come into a lot of art history curriculums,” Schroeder said. “There’s a whole new generation of folks looking at it through a perspective of the arts, but there’s also political engagement and education research on it because it was so progressive in terms of education.”

Titled, “Connecting Legacies: A First Look at the Dreier Black Mountain College Archive,” the exhibition will run through May 17 at the museum. Made up of over 1,000 artworks and other documents, the exhibit not only showcases the rich, vibrant art and innovative artisans that once roamed the campus, it also provides an unbreakable tether to where we stand today in the ever-evolving culture of Asheville and greater Southern Appalachia.

 

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Joseph Fiore, ‘Black Mountain Lake Eden.’

 

Artists featured in the showcase include Lorna Blaine Halper, Ruth Asawa, Hazel Larsen Archer, Elaine Schmitt Urbain, Warren “Pete” Jennerjahn, John Urbain, Joseph Fiore, Ray Johnson, Barbara Morgan, Anni Albers, and more. 

“In this exhibit, we’re really trying to focus on not just the folks everyone knows, but additionally artists who had really amazing careers that aren’t household names yet,” Schroeder said. “And we talk a lot about the legacy of Black Mountain College, so it’s amazing to be able to track it through basically when an artist was there right through the end of their careers.”

Aside from its avant-garde artistic pursuits, Black Mountain College was steadfast and pioneering in its equal schooling and academic opportunities for women and people of color. 

Most notably, Alma Stone Williams became the first African American admitted to the institution in 1944, just about a decade preceding the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Ruling. The next year, the school invited musicians Roland Hayes and Carol Brice to become its first African American faculty members.

“There’s an ethos that we really try to emulate in our exhibitions and in our collecting strategies at the [Asheville Art Museum], and I think we often look to Black Mountain College for inspiration [in doing so],” Schroeder said. “We certainly acknowledge its influence on the area — and even though we collect more broadly — it encourages us to look at what’s happening right now in Western North Carolina, too.” 

 

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Within the endless archive of artwork, photographs, letters and other materials, the museum was able to acquire much of the collection from the family of BMC founder, the late Theodore Dreier. Of which, many of the piece will be permanently housed at the museum once the exhibit concludes in mid-May. 

“The documents and furniture [in the exhibition] from the Dreier family was just up in their family home in Martha’s Vineyard, [Massachusetts],” Schroeder said. “It’s been in their possession all these years and they wanted to place it some sort of public trust, and we were selected to receive the gifts — there’s just something so exciting about being able to have [and research these materials] so close to the place that it all happened.” 

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