Widely recognized for presenting a full-range of moving-image art forms, the Walker Art Center’s film and video programs feature both contemporary and historical works. In the 1940s, the Walker quickly identified moving images (mostly movies, but also experimental films) as integral to contemporary life. Artists of that time were experimenting with film’s formal properties, such as light, motion, and sound, while also separating film art from conventional narrative cinema. The Walker recognized the importance of these developments and made a commitment to the presentation of both experimental and classic cinema as essential to its core mission—a philosophy that continues today.
Early film programs took place at the Women’s Club Assembly and included contemporary works such as Five Abstract Film Exercises (1943–1947) by John and James Whitney and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) by Maya Deren. The volunteer-run Center Arts Council began to present films as early as 1953, including those by accomplished Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder as well as works from abroad, such as Akira Kurasawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) (1955). Film classes for Walker members screened contemporary works like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus) (1951) and Sidney Meyers’ The Quiet One (1948).
During the 1960s, a bi-monthly program featured works that critiqued contemporary culture, such as Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1958) and Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), which were balanced with classics such as Carl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (October: Ten Days That Shook the World) (1927). In 1966, this program began to be curated thematically and included series such as Italian Neo-Realism; Expanded Cinema, which featured underground protest films such as those by Stan VanDerBeek; and the Experimental Film Series, featuring the avant-garde work of Ed Emshwiller, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce Baillie.
In 1973, the Film/Video Department was officially formed and John Hanhardt was named as the first full-time film coordinator. That same year, the Walker’s Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection was established, along with an endowment to fund the development of the archive. Ruben, a leading figure in film exhibition in the Upper Midwest, and his wife Evelyn believed in collecting films as a way of preserving the art form. Today, with more than eight hundred fifty titles, the Ruben Collection brings together classic and contemporary cinema as well as documentaries, avant-garde films, and video works by artists. It is distinctive for its holdings by visual artists that range from classics by Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, and Fernand Léger to extensive contemporary work by William Klein, Derek Jarman, Bruce Conner, Marcel Broodthaers, Nam June Paik, and leading experimental artists who challenged the form and content of film, such as Paul Sharits and Stan Brakhage.
In 1974, Melinda Ward began her five-year term as film curator and quickly instituted the exhibition structure that is still used today. She expanded the annual screening program to more than two hundred fifty different presentations of narrative, documentary, avant-garde, and animated films organized into series by filmmaker, historical periods, and stylistic themes. Some popular programs begun at that time continue today, including Summer Music & Movies and Live Music/Silent Films. Richard Peterson succeeded Ward when she went on to create the Walker’s Learning Museum Program. He presented a broad range of films with a focus on contemporary avant-garde. He added a significant number of these to the Ruben Collection.
Bruce Jenkins, who began his thirteen-year tenure in 1986, produced ambitious screening programs that embraced all genres. In 1990, he initiated the prestigious Regis Dialogue series, which showcases the work of distinguished directors and actors, and features onstage dialogues between artists and noted critics. During the 1990s, moving images were increasingly incorporated into exhibitions, as artists from all disciplines explored the possibilities of the medium. The Film/Video department played a major role in exhibitions such as 2000 B.C.: THE BRUCE CONNER STORY PART II (1999), Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” (1995), and In the Spirit of Fluxus (1993).
Over the years, the department has organized a number of seminars and panel discussions, including two major national conferences focused on the democratization of media production and the aesthetic of the new moving image: Media Arts in Transition, held in 1983; and its 1999 sequel, Media Arts in Transition, Again, which explored changes in the field within a rapidly expanding global, multidisciplinary, and technological context. (The latter was a collaboration with the New Media Initiatives, Design, Visual Arts, and Education departments.)
A key component to the department is the Film/Video artist-in-residence program, which has supported such projects as Cheryl Dunye’s screenwriting workshops conducted inside a prison and Spencer Nakasako’s filmmaking classes with teens. Long-term residencies have also resulted in new commissions, including Shu Lea Cheang’s Bowling Alley (1995–1996), Alan Berliner’s The Language of Names (2001–2002), and Ericka Beckman’s Frame-UP (2004–2005).
The presentation of contemporary world cinema was expanded through the Walker’s Bush Global Initiative by Cis Bierinckx, who served as curator from 2001 to 2002. Building on a long history of programming, the department, now headed by Sheryl Mousley, continues to present film, video, and new forms of media inside and outside the cinema and examine ways that filmmakers and artists alike use moving images to explore our contemporary age.