Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center carries on in difficult times
Black Mountain College was a famous experimental college founded in 1933. Many of the school's faculty and students would go on to become highly influential figures in American arts, including Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Willem de Kooning plus a host of other high profile luminaries. Though the college closed in 1957, its history and spirit are preserved by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, NC. (BMCM+AC)
In a lengthy email Carissa Pfeiffer, Development Manager described how the small but mighty organization is facing the challenges of the pandemic.
“A benefit of being on the small side,” she wrote, “is flexibility. When we ended in-person visits on March 15th, our staff of four immediately leapt into action reimagining how we could continue to bring meaningful experiences and opportunities for education to our audience, with three of us working from home and the fourth, our program director, remaining in the museum to photograph objects.
“By the 22nd, we had managed to launch a Wordpress-based online version of the exhibition that had just opened in late January, Question Everything! The Women of Black Mountain College, a digital resource that includes many of the objects, oral histories, and biographies included in the exhibition.
“A few days later our Museum from Home page was up, providing links to this and other digital resources, recordings of past performances and lectures, podcasts, the online journal, and social media.
“We continued to support artists, curators, and scholars by inviting them to present their work in a variety of ways—from Instagram takeovers to discussions over Zoom. Shifting things online also offered an opportunity to consider a new model for our Active Archive artist and curator residencies.
“In the summer, Leap Then Look (a UK-based creative duo consisting of the artists Bill Leslie and Lucy Cran) completed a ten-day residency that included workshops over Zoom and creative prompts on Instagram, inviting the public to engage with the themes of process, experience, and material exploration.
“Since mid-September, we have been open to the public again, though we now require appointments, restrict our capacity, and mandate masks and distancing.
“Our exhibition on the women of Black Mountain College was cut short, so we made the decision to extend it in an abbreviated format and to add two new exhibitions, one featuring recent gifts to our collection and one about Jonathan Williams and the network of friends and collaborators associated with his small press the Jargon Society. Because these exhibitions were curated by our staff and mostly include works from our own collections, we’re able to conserve funding that would otherwise be spent on things like travel and artwork shipping.”
Asked about how it all started she explained: “The museum and arts center began in 1993 as a grassroots effort directed by Mary Holden. Since its very early days, it has been organizing exhibitions, publishing books, and acquiring items for its permanent collection—even though it had no dedicated public space for the museum to exhibit until 2003.
“Collaboration was absolutely essential from the beginning. Fellow local organizations provided the space to host exhibitions and house collections. In 2016 the Board hired Executive Director Jeff Arnal, and in September 2018 we were able to move into our current home: a newly renovated 6,000 square foot space that provides room to exhibit, host events, and house collections all under the same roof….
“Acquisitions are mostly acquired as gifts from college alumni, family members, and through the museum’s growing network of relationships with collectors and friends of alumni. The collection has grown to encompass more than 4,000 objects. This includes works created at BMC while it existed—but it also goes beyond that. An underlying principle of our collecting policy is not to freeze alumni or faculty in time..., but to provide a full view of their contributions over the years and of the lasting influence of BMC as a community.
“Highlights of the collection include:
Works by potters M.C. Richards, Peter Voulkos, and Karen Karnes, created at Black Mountain College
A collection of family letters written by Alma Stone Williams, the first African American student to attend Black Mountain College in 1944 (ten years before the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education), which shed light on an important milestone in the history of integration in the Jim Crow South
A loom from the Weaving Workshop that provides a direct connection to Anni Albers’s teaching and artistic practice at Black Mountain College
“In addition, there are textiles, furniture, paintings, photographs, and broadsides made at the college.
“Oral histories are also a particular strength, with over 60 created since recording began in 1999, and several dozen more donated. The museum also holds custody and responsibility for the Hazel Larsen Archer Estate, which includes some of the most iconic photographs from BMC, as well as the only extant moving image films created there by Archer and her students.
“The collection is made available to the public primarily through exhibitions,” she continued.
“As part of the current exhibition on the women of BMC, for instance, we commissioned a piece for percussion and modular synthesizer by Bana Haffar, which was performed in February by the Grammy-winning Chicago-based percussion ensemble Third Coast Percussion. Haffar used the resources in our research library to conduct research for her work, Shed, which had a graphic musical score inspired by the weaving notation of BMC weaving instructor Anni Albers. Before the premiere performance, Haffar also led a community workshop explaining the process behind the composition and inviting participants to actively engage with the score.
“The museum has also published more than 30 print exhibition catalogues (most recently VanDerBeek + VanDerBeek) and 11 volumes of a peer-reviewed open-access digital journal, The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. The museum’s print publications are available to purchase in our bookstore, along with books about BMC by other publishers, and a selection of publications by the Jargon Society, the influential small press founded by BMC alumnus Jonathan Williams in 1951.
“These books and many more are also available to the public through our research library. Visitors to the museum can browse our general stacks in person, and/or ask us to pull materials for them. Books in our special collections must be requested in advance. These include publications of the Jargon Society, rare exhibition catalogues, artists’ books, serials relating to the Black Mountain Poets, and—the most popularly requested item—a first edition of Josef Albers’ 1963 Interaction of Color. We work with researchers to provide resources whenever possible, whether by having them here in person or (more frequently, especially these days) by sharing digital scans/photographs.
“When we first started cancelling events, we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last. (Did anyone?) But we’re open now, with a limited capacity and by appointment only. Plans for in-person events continue to be hard to predict, especially for major events (like the planned Faith in Arts Institute and our annual conference) since decisions will have to be made in consideration of public health recommendations.
“What we do know is that we will continue to offer online events, which have been such a great way not only to stay connected with our local audiences, but also to expand that community to include others around the globe. We’re also preparing for the possibility of hybrid events, which might be able to accommodate a limited in-person audience but provide opportunities to engage more participants virtually as well.
“With our planned guest-curated exhibitions on John Cage and Leo Amino postponed, we’ve also been putting together staff-curated exhibitions that draw more from our own permanent collection and local collections (such as the wonderful Western Regional Archives, a division of the State Archives of North Carolina) to present exhibitions that are meaningful and information-rich, but also require fewer financial resources than exhibitions that draw heavily from loaned works.
“We are also prioritizing connections with contemporary artists in the BMC legacy with loans, commissions, and programs and collaborating with local organizations like the Campaign for Southern Equality’s Southern Equality Studios.
“Looking ahead to this spring, we plan to open a new exhibition with a focus on global citizenship, grounded in the college’s international influences, robust immigrant community, and principles of democratic responsibility. The exhibition will pair works from our collection alongside works by contemporary artists. It will be curated by BMCM+AC Program Director Alice Sebrell and Outreach Manager Kate Averett, who also curated Question Everything! The Women of Black Mountain College.”
As for the money to stay afloat?
“BMCM+AC does not have an endowment, instead relying on the generosity of individual donors, private foundations, and government sources. This year, we were so lucky that many of our core supporters recognized the need for additional operating support to cover the cost of rent, utilities, insurance, and staff salaries, especially while we were completely closed.
“Out of consideration for the fact that individuals, too, are struggling, we made the decision early on that we would delay appeals to individual donors, offer all of our online programs at no cost to the public, and extend membership expirations for the length of our closure.
“Instead, we focused on reaching out to foundation support and submitting applications for emergency funding from government sources. We were lucky to receive emergency funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Windgate Foundation, and others which together enabled us to retain our entire staff and reopen safely.
“Although we didn’t primarily focus fundraising efforts on individual giving while we were closed, it has been wonderful to see how many of our individual donors were incredibly generous, increasing donations from previous years even if it was just from $15 to $20. We actually reached a record for donor retention from 2019 to 2020, meaning that even without being able to visit us in person for half the year, our supporters stuck with us. We’re still experiencing and anticipating reduced revenue in 2021, so I hope that our funders both large and small will continue to respond to the need for support.
“Another revenue stream that typically provides us with a small portion of operating support is our bookstore, through which we sell our own museum publications, other books relating to BMC, and select publications of the Jargon Society, the influential small press founded by BMC alumnus Jonathan Williams in 1951. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the bookstore support the museum. We’ve begun trying to expand the bookstore’s reach by sharing more about these publications on Instagram and listing offerings not only on our web store but also on Biblio.com, which is also based here in Asheville, so that our books are more easily discoverable.”
Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
Asheville, NC 28801
Journal Article - A Small But Mighty Museum www.jstor.org/stable/45124309?seq=1