The curator Sally Dixon with other curators in the background

When Sally Dixon’s Office was a Bastion of the Experimental Film Scene

Sally Dixon’s office was, in a word, stunning. Back in the early 1970s, before the present-day museum of art building was constructed, Carnegie Institute was sorely in need of extra space. So when Dixon launched the museum’s film program in 1970, the attic space above the Carnegie Lecture Hall (now part of the Carnegie Library’s main branch in Oakland) was offered to her and she transformed it into an office. With large windows and a mishmash of scavenged furniture and knick-knacks—not to mention the beautiful letterpress posters on the walls, many of which we have in our archive—it became an important meeting place for filmmakers, curators, and scholars from near and far. This Pittsburgh Press article, dated February 8, 1970, offers a vivid description of Dixon’s office, with the reporter playfully referring to its decor as “Early Museum Basement.”

Sally Dixon in her office, c. 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive. Photograph: Robert Haller.

In our archive, we have dozens of images of meetings, press conferences, and chat sessions that Dixon hosted in her office. It’s a veritable who’s who of the film world.

Not only are these images compelling to look at, but they are the only visual record we have of some of these meetings, which helps us piece together the history of film in Pittsburgh and the role Dixon played in the experimental film surge of the 1970s. Dixon was riding the crest of an art-world wave that would eventually see the movement of experimental film out of small, independent venues like coffee shops and into long-standing cultural institutions such as Carnegie Institute.

Sally Dixon in her office. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive. Photograph: Robert Haller.

In one such image from 1971, we see visual artist Ed Emshwiller chatting with Gerry O’Grady, a well-known media scholar from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. From correspondence and program notes in our archive, we know that Ed Emshwiller visited Sally Dixon and her crew in February 1971 to screen some of his experimental films and give a lecture to an audience at Carnegie Lecture Hall, but this image is the only record we have of his meeting with O’Grady in Pittsburgh. (In the 1970s, both men became well-known for their work and experimentation with new media in Buffalo.)

Visual artist Ed Emshwiller and Gerry O’Grady, a media scholar at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, in Sally Dixon’s office in 1971. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive. Photograph: Robert Haller.

Stan Brakhage is another artist who appears in these images of Dixon’s office, although more frequently than expected. We know that he visited Pittsburgh twice to screen his films in the 1970s, but also came to shoot his Pittsburgh Documents (also sometimes called The Pittsburgh Trilogy) with help from Dixon and her contacts around the city. Once we’ve finished processing (cataloging) these photographs, they will provide us with a better sense of how many times he actually came to the city.

Stan Brakhage and Sally Dixon in her office, 1971. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive. Photograph: Robert Haller.

In 1974, Carnegie Institute finished construction on the current museum of art building and Dixon and her film department moved out of the attic space and into an office near the museum’s theater. The modern office now houses the Department of Film and Video archive, while also acting as a work space for the Teenie Harris archivists and researchers from the Time-Based Media Project. We’re fortunate to have some of the knick-knacks Dixon collected still hanging on our walls, including her beautiful mid-century clock.

By transforming a storage space into a welcoming office, Dixon not only made the best of a tough situation, but offered a home away from home to visiting filmmakers from across the country.

Program Notes is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.