It all started in 2000, when I was president of UNLV and Glenn Schaeffer, who was then president of Mandalay Resort Group, came to visit me. Glenn had gotten his M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers workshop; he had remained a man of letters, and he was very interested in having something dedicated to modern letters at UNLV. He knew that my background and my passion was in literature. His idea was to create a small college within the larger university that would be almost a replica of Black Mountain College, the legendary arts-based school in North Carolina that was prominent from the 1930s through the 1950s.
The idea was to bring artists and writers, musicians and sculptors to teach students from their various points of view. We talked about it a lot, but we had just created the Honors College from what had been a small program, and I thought the two entities might overlap and compete with one another. So Glenn and I said, “OK, let's just keep talking.”
In 2001 was the International Institute of Modern Letters. It was a small beginning. The institute was housed in and around the English department. [UNLV English professors] Doug Unger and Richard Wiley had roles with the institute, and Eric Olsen, an old friend of Glenn's from Iowa, was the editor and publisher. They thought of themselves as a publishing house and published wonderful art books; they intended to do 26 for every letter of the alphabet. They published nine beautiful, gorgeous works. But there wasn't much potential for IIML to grow: Glenn was supporting the institute separately from the university, and I knew we could do much more for it if it was inside the university.
Glenn and I had many conversations about various models. Meanwhile, he had bought the trademark — only Las Vegans do things like this — to Black Mountain College, which had closed in 1957. We own it; he gave it to us. And he said, you know, if you want to be Black Mountain something, you've got the mark! There was a kind of wonderful destiny to it with our own Black Mountain sitting in the south Valley. It just all came together around that title and the idea of a place for real artistic communications, both with students and with the community.
In my last year as president, 2005-06, I asked Richard Wiley to take on a new rolen to think through what sort of an institute we could create. Richard and [Nobel Prize-winning UNLV professor] Wole Soyinka had just started our City of Asylum program. We had confidence that we could do more programming. We could involve writers, we could have fellows, we could be this center for critical thinking.
All of that evolved during my last year as president, so there was a natural transition. I did not want to become a full-time fundraiser, which is what some of the trustees wanted me to do. I wanted much more to have this literary experience again.
So we all agreed finally: We’re going to start this new thing. What are we going to call it? The Black Mountain Institute.
Amber Withycombe had worked for IIML, and we hired her as our assistant director. She was the perfect one to bridge the gap between the old entity and BMI. She had her master's in creative nonfiction from Iowa, and she was a graphic designer as well. It was Amber and Richard and I, and we hired Maritza White as our administrative assistant, and it was the four of us for years.
We tried to look at everything in the country that was in any way remotely related to see if we could beg, borrow, and steal ideas. We wanted to get the community involved right away, so we worked on the public programs first. We didn't want to charge for tickets, we knew that. Literary stuff was not on everybody's front burner here and charging even $5 is a disincentive for people to come. That meant we had to raise all the money privately.
The university gave us the small space that we started with and the salaries of four people. But from the very beginning, all the programming, all the fellowships, all the various emerging writers — all of that came from private money. We were creating this thing out of nothing, so we had to push ourselves to raise that money.
And we’ve done pretty well!