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Riding the (New) Wave: An Interview with Avant-Garde Film Curator Sally Dixon

Working with American avant-garde filmmakers in the 1960s and ’70s was thrilling, says Sally Dixon. A creator of “film poems” in the 1960s and later one of the country’s first curators of avant-garde film, Dixon recalls her days of deep personal and professional connection with luminaries such as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Bruce Baillie, Carolee Schneeman, Paul Sharits, Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and others. Through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, Dixon brought a series of avant-garde filmmakers to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh to create and screen their work. Later, after living near the Brakhages in the mountains of Colorado, she moved to St. Paul to fill in as temporary director of Film in the Cities (FITC). At FITC, an organization that screened independent films and helped train young practitioners, she met current Walker film/video curator Sheryl Mousley, who was then director of education at FITC. Dixon went on to create Filmmakers Filming in 1979, a program copresented with the Walker Art Center that brought cutting-edge filmmakers to the area. In 1980 she became the Bush Foundation’s director of artist fellowships. Her impact on the film scene, locally and nationally, has been indelible, and it will have a ripple effect for years to come.

Dixon recently announced her intention to give the Walker Art Center some 30 rare films from her collection, along with related postcards, mementos, correspondence, and photographs she’s collected over many years. This donation includes seminal works such as Brakhage’s Duplicity, Robert Breer’s 1972 Gulls and Buoys, and Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother. In a recent conversation with Mousley and Walker archivist Jill Vetter, Dixon talked about her career, her relationship to the filmmakers, and her generous gift to the Walker’s Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection.

Sheryl Mousley:

When you were in the midst of curating experimental film in the 1960s and ’70s, did you recognize how special it was?

Sally Dixon:

I did. I felt we were riding the crest of the wave … it couldn’t have failed, no matter what. I was one of the paddlers, and it was very important to me to keep getting my paddle in that water. I was taking great joy in doing it.

Jill Vetter:

You developed friendships at the time that you were able to maintain over the years, probably because of this wave.

SD:

Definitely. That’s what’s in these letters. So many of them talk about the friendships that came out of it—a real devotion to each other, as individuals, as people, as filmmakers. It was wonderful … Paul Sharits, Kenneth Anger, Carolee Schneeman, Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, Bruce Baillie, Robert Breer, Hollis Frampton, each of them so interesting, so original.

SM:

You brought some of these artists to FITC.

SD:

They came and loved what was happening at FITC. I think they had a great effect on the students who were there, and they also did things at the Walker. In other words, the Walker has always been great in this city, not seeing themselves as enclosed within the walls: the entire community is their space, so to speak, and it was a joy to me to come here and discover that.

JV:

This brings us full circle to talk about your gift and the connection to the Walker and the Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection.

SD:

Scholars will be able to see these films—some very rare—and to read letters by the art-ists about their process of making them. This era will continue to fascinate film scholars since it is such a significant part of the history of cinema. I want to present this gift in honor of the Walker naming Sheryl curator of Film/Video, because she’s going to do—and has already done—marvelous, strong, and leading-edge programs. The Walker is making a difference in the film world today, and I’m donating my collection in thanks for that.

Sally Dixon

Photo: Laura A. Crosby

Stan Brakhage filming Eyes, Pittsburgh, 1971

Photo: Mike Chikiris