History of the Department of Film and Video
The film program at Carnegie Museum of Art has quite a history. From 1970 to 2003, the Department of Film and Video organized and facilitated many theatrical screenings and moving image exhibitions at the museum and around Pittsburgh. The Department (known in its earliest days as the Film Section and later the Section of Film and Video) was one of the first museum-based moving image programs in the country. Founded in 1970 by Sally Dixon, a pioneering and charismatic champion of filmmakers, the program helped experimental film and video artists launch their careers and share their works with new audiences. It was an exciting and innovative period for experimental film in Pittsburgh, and Sally Dixon and her cohorts provided a home away from home for moving image artists from all over the world.
When Sally Dixon established the department in 1970, she partnered with CMOA director Leon Arkus, the museum’s Women’s Committee, and local film scene leaders like Charles Glassmire and Robert Haller to build the new program. It was originally envisioned as a three-year, temporary venture meant to “promote the appreciation of film as an art form and the filmmaker as an artist,” but soon grew into a fully fledged section within the museum.
Dixon’s programming included an active roster of screening series, workshops, and filmmaker lectures held in the museum's lecture and music halls (CMOA and its theater were built in 1974) and at Pittsburgh’s Selma Burke Art Center (demolished ca. 1981). In 1971, Pittsburgh Filmmakers incorporated as its own organization but continued to co-host events with CMOA’s film section for more than 30 years.
At the center of the program were the regular screening series, which included the History of Film Series, Directors Series, Collection Series, and Visiting Filmmakers Series. Also known as the Independent Film-Maker Series, this was the life-blood of the program. It featured appearances by a wide range of moving image and performance artists like Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Joan Jonas, Jack Smith, Hollis Frampton, Roger Jacoby, James Broughton, Bruce Conner, Freude Bartlett, Ping Chong, Stephen Beck, Yvonne Rainer, Jonas Mekas, and many others. Sally Dixon welcomed these artists into the museum and often into her home, making Pittsburgh an important meeting place for moving image artists, film curators, and film scholars from near and far. Her dinner parties remain legendary in the Pittsburgh film community.
Dixon also helped some of these filmmakers gain access to restricted locations to shoot new work. She arranged for Hollis Frampton to film at a mill owned by the U.S. Steel Corporation and a morgue run by the University of Pittsburgh. She also helped Stan Brakhage gain access to various locations around the city for his Pittsburgh Trilogy. She worked with local photographer Mike Chikiris to organize filming at local police stations, a hospital, and a morgue where Brakhage shot eyes, Deus Ex, and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. Later on, Dixon promoted the Pittsburgh Trilogy overseas as part of a cultural tour with the United States Information Agency (USIA) in the mid-1970s.
The film program at CMOA helped make Pittsburgh a galvanizing place for independent experimental film in the 1970s and 1980s. The museum partnered with other organizations across the city to professionalize the art form and pay honoraria to visiting artists (usually $500, which in today’s currency is around $2000). The museum also increased visibility of the artists through the Film and Video Makers Travel Sheet (a series of monthly directories that had over 2,000 subscribers worldwide).
After five years, Sally Dixon left the museum to pursue other projects (including becoming interim director of Film in the Cities in Minnesota). Bill Judson, an inspiring film scholar and regular film studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh (CMOA’s next-door neighbor), took over as film curator in 1975. He strengthened the already tight relationship between the film program and the surrounding schools and colleges, continuing to host screenings with Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, Carlow College, the University of Pittsburgh, and of course, Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Teachers and students would crowd into the private screening room next to Judson’s office to view works from the museum’s incredible collection of film prints. Judson also globalized the museum’s regular screening series, bringing cinema from around the world to Pittsburgh. In the 1990s, the film program became a go-to source for foreign films and attracted multicultural audiences from around the city.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the film program also had a strong presence in the museum’s galleries, especially after the advancement of video technology. Judson and his crew mounted large moving image exhibitions, including the wildly popular American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove (1988) and Points of Departure: Origins in Video (1990–1991), as well as individual pieces in the Carnegie International exhibitions, including Dara Birnbaum’s multi-channel installation piece Damnation of Faust: will-o'-the-wisp (A Deceitful Goal) (1983) and Bill Viola’s The Sleep of Reason (1988).
Late in 2002, after more than 30 years, CMOA announced that it was transferring its moving image programming to its Contemporary Art Department and dissolving its official film program. The film program helped the museum build a strong collection of more than 800 film and video titles, and CMOA has continued to grow its collection through acquisitions and commissions. Examples include Christian Jankowski’s Puppet Conference (2003), Kutlug Ataman’s Kuba (2004), John Bock’s Meechfieber (2004), Jesper Just’s Bliss and Heaven (2004), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2005), Phil Collins’s the world won’t listen (2004–2007), Doug Aitken’s migration (empire)–linear version (2008), Cory Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11, and Frances Stark’s My Best Thing (2011). CMOA has also augmented its representation of seminal works from the 1960s and 1970s by such artists as Bruce Naumann, Paul McCarthy, Nam June Paik, and Martha Rosler.
The Department of Film and Video at CMOA helped make Pittsburgh a go-to place for experimental moving image works in the 1970s and 1980s. As one of the first museum-based film programs in the country, it helped professionalize and institutionalize the art form, and provided support and resources to innovative and pioneering artists. This legacy continues to live on through the lasting film community in Pittsburgh and through the CMOA museum archives, where researchers can explore and learn from ephemera and artifacts from this inspiring time in the history of experimental film.