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Rediscovering History: CMOA’s Remarkable Experimental Film Collection

Carnegie Museum of Art has just launched an exciting new online archive devoted to the rich history of our time-based media collection. It allows for the rediscovery of a time, the 1970s and ’80s, when the museum and the city of Pittsburgh played a crucial role in the development of avant-garde cinema in the United States. The website is the result of generous grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the care of, and research on, our collection of film, video, audio, and documentation.

In the 1950s and ’60s it became possible for individuals to make movies without a studio infrastructure, and by the late 1960s there was a community of cutting-edge artists working with film. Sally Dixon, a filmmaker herself, founded the CMOA’s Film Section in 1970 with the support of then director Leon Arkus. At the time, only New York and San Francisco had serious avant-garde film scenes; and MoMA, Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives in New York, and the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley provided the only ongoing institutional support.

Dixon played a crucial role in making Pittsburgh a hotbed of experimental film activity. Under her leadership, CMOA pioneered the practice of paying artists substantial honoraria and fees, which allowed them to continue making films and encouraged them to do so in this city. Among the important figures who presented their work in Pittsburgh were Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Ed Emshwiller, Hollis Frampton, and Carolee Schneemann. A great advocate for the artists, Dixon helped several of them secure permission to shoot in restricted locations around Pittsburgh—hospital operating rooms, the city morgue, US Steel. Brakhage’s masterpiece The Pittsburgh Documents (1971) was shot at various sites throughout the city. Correspondence and photographs related to the project are in the archive, as are several letters from Dixon to Edward Sabol, founder of NFL films, requesting permission to film the Steelers in 1972. Sadly, Sabol never responded.

Stan Brakhage filming Deus Ex (1971). Department of Film and Video Archive.
Stan Brakhage filming Deus Ex (1971). Department of Film and Video Archive.

Dixon created the Film and Video Makers’ Travel Sheets, a newsletter that facilitated lecture tours and exhibitions by independent media makers in the United States and abroad, connecting them with screening venues around the country. She also acquired films from the artists, starting our collection. By 1975, when she resigned her position at the museum, Dixon’s program had a national reputation. Her friend and colleague William Judson, who had been teaching film history at the University of Pittsburgh, took over her role at CMOA, elaborating on the path she had set.

The museum currently owns nearly 1,000 time-based media artworks, as well as 173 recorded conversations and lectures with artists such as Kenneth Anger, Brakhage, Albert Maysles, Yvonne Rainer, and Paul Sharits. Correspondence and ephemera are among its greatest treasures; 250 linear feet of that material has been sorted and evaluated in order to preserve and provide access to what is unique in our holdings.

Although the CMOA Department of Film and Video was disbanded in 2003, time-based media has continued to come into the collection, and film and video remain a priority for the contemporary curatorial staff. In time, we expect to mount an exhibition accompanied by a catalogue on the collection and its history. This will allow us to share our findings with the Pittsburgh community, many of whom will have insights of their own to add. It will also let the larger world know what happened in this city and at this museum just a few decades ago.

In the meantime, I encourage you to explore the archives, spending time with the letters, postcards, recordings, and photographs that it contains. These materials bring history to life, revealing not only what happened here but also the personalities and motivations of those involved. Discover for yourself the intricate web of connections fostered in Pittsburgh during this remarkable period.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.