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Sally Dixon in conversation with Gunvor Nelson, ca. 1975. Photo: Robert Haller. Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Sally Dixon in conversation with Gunvor Nelson, ca. 1975. Photo: Robert Haller. Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Sally Dixon (1932–2019)

Sally Dixon, an early champion of avant-garde film, has died at age eighty-seven in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the institution to whom Dixon donated more than thirty rare films in 2005, announced the curator’s death. She was known not only for her institutional support of such work but also for her hands-on approach to assisting artists—she even appeared in some of their films.

Born in Seattle in 1932, Dixon became interested in film in the ’60s, when her father-in-law gave her a handheld camera on which she began to experiment. Educated in art at Carnegie Mellon, Bennington, and Chatham, Dixon went on to found the “Film Section” of the Carnegie Museum of Art—the country’s second such department after New York’s Museum of Modern Art—in 1970. She continued to lead the division, which was located in one of the museum’s attic spaces for the first four years of its existence, until 1975. On April 1, 1970, only a month after the program’s launch, Jonas Mekas came to visit, lecture, and show selections from the epic, 180-minute-long Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1969). Other visitors to the museum during this time included Stan Brakhage, Tony Conrad, Carolee Schneemann, and many others.

Anticipating issues of labor in digital media, Dixon notably advocated for compensating artists working with the moving image. In 1973, Dixon and the Carnegie Museum of Art began publishing The Film and Video Makers Travel Sheet, a monthly bulletin announcing the dates and locations of film screenings and lectures that quickly developed into a means of exposure for artists working in new media. The Film and Video Makers Travel Sheet ran until 1987. Also in 1973, Dixon traveled to Europe with the United States Information Agency in order to promote American film abroad, bringing along with her the three Brakhage films making up the “Pittsburgh Trilogy,” all of which were shot in the city in 1971 with her support.

In 1976, Dixon moved briefly to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the university and be closer to the Brakhage family. Two years later, she returned to Minnesota, where she would live for the rest of her life, to direct the Saint Paul media center Film in the Cities and continue her mission of bringing important filmmakers to her backyard. In 1980, Dixon served as the first-ever director of artist fellowships at the Bush Foundation, where she worked to support Midwestern artists. Following her significant gift to the Walker, the museum opened “The Renegades: American Avant Garde Film, 1960­–1973” in 2012. Upon the opening of the Film Section, Dixon remarked: “[The films] are for smaller . . . and more limited audiences, people who are interested in poetry and art and museums, but they would appeal to the poet in everyone.”