Sally Dixon never seemed to have any fear when taking on a new adventure. This might have been her special trait first indicated when she learned to fly as a young girl, getting her pilot’s license at age 16. Always looking at the world from above the fray, for decades she helped shape what was happening in the circles of art and film in the Twin Cities and across the nation.
When I learned of her passing at age 87 on November 5, I remembered so many things about Sally. I had heard about her work as a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in the early 1970s. A dynamic programmer, she started the film program and brought a series of avant-garde filmmakers to Pittsburgh to create and screen their work. She had deep personal and professional connection with luminaries such as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Bruce Baillie, Carolee Schneemann, Paul Sharits, Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and others. This timeframe, from 1970 to 1975, was early in the recognition of film as an art form to be shown within a museum setting. Besides her work, Sally also had her family, including sons John, Steven, and Alexander. The youngest, Zander, told me about traveling with his mother throughout Europe when she brought experimental films as part of a cultural tour with the United States Information Agency (USIA).
Leaving Pittsburgh in 1976, she moved to Colorado to teach at the University of Colorado, Boulder and live near the Brakhage family. There she also met her second husband, photographer and book artist Ricardo Bloch, on an outing to the Telluride Film Festival. Later, in 1978, when she accepted an interim directorship at Film in the Cities, a media arts center in St. Paul, she and Ricardo moved to Minnesota, saying they planned to stay one year, maybe two. Sally spent the rest of her life here.
I met Sally Dixon when she came to Film in the Cities, where I was director of education. Her time on staff was just two years, yet her presence would influence the art and film worlds in the area for decades to come.
While at Film in the Cities, Sally continued to invite filmmakers who were groundbreaking, changing the world of film. Melinda Ward, then the Walker’s film curator, started a program with Sally called Filmmakers Filming. The impressive group of artists visiting the Twin Cities would show their films at Walker and then teach master classes at FITC. I saw the influence of these visionaries on the local film students and filmmakers.
Leaving FITC, Sally went to become the director of artist fellowships at the Bush Foundation, where her love and understanding of the artistic practice made her a leader in foundation giving to the arts. She became famous for bringing artists together, including the panelists and the recipients. Her artist dinners were legendary. After retiring she energized her own artistic practice, such as when she took up the plight of Guantanamo prisoners by organizing and directing a theatrical production on their behalf to bring attention to their lives and stories. She drew daily in her sketch books, often the crows out her window. And she danced into our hearts through Kairos Dance Company.
In 2005 Sally donated 30 rare films from her collection to the Walker Art Center, along with related postcards, mementos, correspondence, and photographs she’d collected over many years. The films now reside in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and the correspondence in the Walker Archive. Her donation was made, as she said at the time, in honor of my appointment as head of the Walker’s Film/Video department. Later, in 2012, I curated an exhibition titled The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960–1973 in honor of Sally. The exhibition included films by Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Gunvor Nelson, Bruce Conner, Bruce Baille, and Ernie Gehr. Monthly film screenings took place in the Walker Cinema to accompany this exhibition, and a highlight was Sally presenting an evening of films she had championed over her career.
On a very personal note, when David Goldes and I were married in 1987, Sally officiated the ceremony. Her grace and charm made us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. She was like a grandmother to our son, Joseph, and she was the one who made Christmas dinners, Easter dinners, Thanksgiving dinners, Passover Seders, everyday dinners, birthday parties, New Year’s parties, artist parties—all with beautiful plates and delicious food in her dining room, with the forward tilting plate rack, a player phonograph, and above all, Sally’s generosity and warmth shaping us into family.
Sally Dixon will be missed but her spirit, enthusiasm, and kindness lives on in all who were impacted by her.