By Sarah Carballo

In the center of urban Asheville, one museum is in the business of transforming lives through art.

The Asheville Art Museum, according to their mission statement, aims to engage, enlighten and inspire through the visual arts. As part of their mission, the museum’s collections and exhibitions focus on American art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and art significant to the southeast region.

Asheville Art Museum Curator Carolyn Grosch said one of their major focuses are works by artists of Black Mountain College. In operation from 1933 to 1957, Black Mountain College was a unique experiment in arts and education.

The founders of the college, according to Black Mountain College Museum, believed the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education. However, Black Mountain College scholar Mary Emma Harris said, though the emphasis on art was extremely important, the founding philosophy of the college extended far beyond art in the traditional sense.
“At Black Mountain, they were not initially trying to train professional artists. The idea was to teach students to become effective members of a democratic society,” Harris said, “and the artist was seen to be as a person who thought outside of the box, as a person who used their imagination, who thought through situations, who could evaluate material.”

However, Harris said Black Mountain College required an enormous commitment from the people who went there.

“Black Mountain was not a perfect place in any sense of the word,” Harris said. “It was a deeply conflicted place. There were disagreements over educational policy, over all kinds of things. It was not an easy place to be.”

Despite its difficulties, the greatest importance of Black Mountain College, said Curator Carolyn Grosch, is that it brought together the right people at the right time.

“I think that led to a lot of new developments, and a lot of different attitudes,” Grosch said, “different perspectives on art, different approaches to art.”

According to the Black Mountain College Museum, the college attracted many influential writers, artists and musicians in its day including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Dorothea Rockburne.

Now, many works from the Black Mountain College era are preserved within the collection at the Asheville Art Museum to influence and inspire others.

“It gives you a space to step back from your ordinary time. You experience the artwork and then you go back to your life with a different awareness,” said Grosch, “and that is the power of art to change the world.”