In 1933, students at Black Mountain College did not have to pay a single dollar of tuition. Class sizes were small, there were only two required courses in the curriculum, and faculty included Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius and National Medal of Arts winning composer, Merce Cunningham. At one point, Albert Einstein was a guest lecturer. There was no application to get in, and students could come and go as they pleased. The only catch? Sometimes they had to take out the trash.
Originally a small liberal arts school tucked away in the rolling hills of the North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountain range, Black Mountain College evolved during its 24-year tenure into what is now widely known as a legendary wellspring of the American avant-garde movement. Experimental, progressive, and often on the verge of bankruptcy, Black Mountain College embraced an arts-centric curriculum based on founder John Rice’s belief in the centrality of the artistic experience for inspiring students’ participation in a democratic society. In line with these values, students at Black Mountain College played active roles in their own education, building their own classrooms, and growing their own food.
Last month, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston debuted Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, a comprehensive look at the college’s legacy as a touchstone for modern art and its role in setting a precedent for progressive education rooted in interdisciplinary collaboration. The exhibition, which took four years to organize, is the ICA’s biggest curatorial undertaking to date, featuring over 200 works by nearly 100 artists and an extensive performing arts program.
The ICA’s location in Boston makes it an especially fitting place for the first comprehensive exhibit on Black Mountain College. “It attracts many people of a student mindset, whether it’s actual students enrolled in universities but also people who simply consider themselves to be seeking knowledge in an academically rich environment,” said Tufts professor Eric Rosenberg, who specializes in American contemporary art.
Founded during the darkest depths of the Great Depression, Black Mountain College taught its students how to cope with challenging circumstances during a particularly cash-strapped period of American history. Leap Before You Look captures the creative ways in which students and teachers responded to scarcity converting this feeling into an ethos of determination and drive. The exhibit includes work by textile instructor Anni Albers, who created necklaces made of paper clips and bobby pins. It also displays a series of photographs of students and teachers working together to dig ditches and construct pylons for the foundations of what would become their classrooms. At Black Mountain College, students quite literally became the foundation of their own education, erecting buildings into the ground that they inhabited, and sowing the seeds of the plants that they consumed.
One of the most famous pieces to come out of Black Mountain College was Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, an architectural structure constructed from an open framework of overlapping circles. It offered a cost-effective means of providing shelter because it enclosed the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, without the need for internal braces.
As an educational institution, Black Mountain College set a precedent by treating its classes as experimental laboratories, where the materialization of failure was embraced and encouraged. Fuller experimented with many different designs for his geodesic dome before he managed to erect it successfully. Even though his dome collapsed many times before standing on its own, he viewed these failures as useful for his students to learn about process, materials, and collaboration. “People felt an extraordinary degree of permission to experiment. Some of the experiments resulted in failures, but some of them resulted in really interesting ways of expanding our idea of the category of art,” said Helen Molesworth, curator of Leap Before You Look, in a press release.
Chantal Zakari, a professor at the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston, teaches her students about Black Mountain College in her classes. Zakari sees the school as a model for how art should be taught today. “They really believed in hands on education, which is also how we understand contemporary art. The way to get to the objective is more important sometimes than the object that gets created. This emphasis on the process…comes from Black Mountain College,” said Zakari.
By allowing students to share communal living quarters with the faculty and operate free from any form of administration, Black Mountain College fostered an atmosphere of interdisciplinary collaboration between the students and the teachers, who were largely seen as equals. “It wouldn’t be unusual for a dance [teacher] like Merce Cunningham to ask [student] Rauschenberg to paint the background set for his performance. They had a lot of respect for each other’s disciplines and were seeing everything as a collaborative effort,” Zakari said.
Students at the college were even encouraged to apply concepts from their liberal arts classes to the works that they created in their fine arts classes—one painting in the exhibit shows a student’s abstract visual representation of a biological process that he had learned in a science class.
This summer and fall, Professor Zakari has been serving on a faculty advising committee that is exploring how the SMFA and Tufts can expand their partnership, and sees Black Mountain College as an inspirational model for the interdisciplinary learning that she hopes to foster. While the committee is still in its preliminary stages, Zakari is still “personally very excited about the truly interdisciplinary connections that art students at the Museum School and Tufts liberal arts students can do with fine arts.” Currently, Tufts students, with the exception of dual-degree majors, are limited to taking night and weekend art classes at the SMFA—only art students through the museum school are allowed to take classes at the SMFA during the day.
In the future, Zakari hopes to incorporate liberal arts students’ knowledge, in everything from engineering to poetry, into the study of fine arts. “For me, Black Mountain College is a very inspiring model, even though it cannot fully be recreated today,” she said.