Skip to main content

Photo: courtesy Image Entertainment

The Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection is a vital part of presentation of film as an art form. Any day that you visit the Walker, moving images will be part of your experience as you move throughout the building and around the Walker campus. —Sheryl Mousley, Senior Curator, Moving Images

The Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection includes more than 1,000 titles, which range from the early films of the Lumière Brothers in 1894 to the present. For more than 40 years, from inception to present, the Collection has served as a site of preservation, scholarship, research, exhibition, and community engagement. Artworks from the Collection are regularly featured throughout the Walker Art Center in spaces such as the Bentson Mediatheque, Walker Cinema, galleries and gardens. Major presentations including: Merce Cunningham: Common Time, The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960–1973, Midnight Party, Art Expanded, 1958–1978, Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, International Pop and Summer Music & Movies.

Established in 1973 to further the appreciation and scholarly study of the art of film, the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection serves as a basis for explorations into the history of cinema and the aesthetic and theoretical properties of the medium. Not limited to one genre or era, the history is as diverse as its curators and programmers. The holdings consist of 16mm and 35mm films, as well as video and digital artworks. Its strengths include early silent films with a concentration on those from the Soviet era, by artists including Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov; European avant-garde films including artists Marcel Broodthaers, Derek Jarman, William Klein, and Fernand Léger; and American experimental films, including artists Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Gunvor Nelson, and Paul Sharits. As video and media artworks were acquired the holding diversified to include a wider range of artworks by artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Joan Jonas, Tony Oursler, Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, and many others. Recent additions to the collection have included the series of Moving Image Commissions, when invited artists make new works that premiere on the Walker website.

The History of the Ruben/ Benston Moving Image Collection

Beginnings

The Ruben Film Collection was established in 1973 with a generous grant from Edmond R. Ruben, a leading figure in film exhibition in the Upper Midwest and his wife, Evelyn, an avid art collector. Though the Walker had exhibited and screened moving images since the 1940s, the Ruben family’s gift enabled the museum to increase acquisition efforts begun the previous year under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It also allowed Walker director Martin Friedman to bring John Hanhardt from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as the Walker’s first full-time film programmer in 1973. Under the leadership and vision of Hanhardt, the newly formed film department began collecting materials “to further the appreciation and scholarly study of the art of film.” In this same spirit, the collection remains a cornerstone of the Moving Image department and a site for students, scholars, and visitors to explore the history of cinema and the aesthetic and theoretical properties of the medium.

“The moving image … gives us new images, new narratives, new stories, new ways to understand our world,” said Hanhardt. “It is the fabric, the material of our culture. For me, the greatest rewards as a curator are those which artists give us. Artists give us new ways to see and understand ourselves and the world around us. This has an impact on all sectors of representation.”

Inspired by the burgeoning film department at the Carnegie Art Museum and his work at MoMA under curator Willard Van Dyke, Hanhardt imagined a film collection beyond a simple archive. The Ruben Film Collection (now the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection) was one of the first of its kind: it was a way for the Walker to engage with the community and collect from emerging and classical artists as well as facilitate innovative programming, exhibitions, and screenings. With the initial gift from the Rubens, Hanhardt purchased 16mm prints that reflected the diverse history and character of film. These works served as the cornerstone for the collection and included the Lumière Program (1894–1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin Porter, The Lonedale Operator(1911), Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916) by D. W. Griffith, A Night in the Show (1915), The Rink (1916), The Cure (1917), Easy Street(1917), and A Woman (1915) by Charlie Chaplin, The General (1926) by Buster Keaton, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren, The Lead Shoes (1949) by Sidney Peterson, and Serene Velocity by Ernie Gehr (1970).

Early Collecting, Programming, and Curation

From the start, the acquisition of films for the Ruben Collection went hand-in-hand with film programming. In his first year at the Walker, Hanhardt began a tradition of supporting filmmakers and artists by purchasing and showing their work that continues today. Key to this artist/curator relationship is the Walker’s ongoing commitment to providing opportunities for artists to build their craft through Visiting Filmmaker residencies (est. 1972 by Shepard) and integration of collections into Walker’s galleries and exhibitions, including the landmark show Projected Images (1974, featuring works by Peter Campus, Rockne Krebs, Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, Ted Victoria, and Robert Whitman.)
In 1974, Melinda Ward joined the Walker as film programmer (Hanhardt departed for the Whitney Art Museum) and sought to expand the collection to include more experimental and independent cinema and explore the integration of the collection with new media technologies and television. Due to Ward’s focus on building relationships with filmmakers and the community, the collection grew tremendously during her tenure from 1974 to 1985. Ward also acquired prints from local collectors, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 Ivan the Terrible, Part I.
Richard Peterson became the Walker’s film coordinator in 1979 and continued collaborating with Film in the Cities, a media arts organization active from 1970 to 1993, to bring artists to Walker through the Filmmakers Filming Series. In 1983, responding to the changing tide in moving images, the collection (and department) title added Video for the first time. And, in 1984 another gift from Mr. and Mrs. Ruben initiated an expansion of the collection and its activities, which at this time consisted of mostly 16mm and 35mm films by a wide range of artists.
Peterson’s programming often reflected the richness of the collection. In 1985, the Film/Video program cosponsored an ambitious screening of The Battleship Potemkin with the Minnesota Orchestra. Earlier in 1980, the Walker screened a live musical performance by Arthur Kleiner to Abel Gance’s Napoleon. This event featured customized projection and screens to enable the famous triptych scene as well as with Gance in attendance.
Bruce Jenkins joined the Walker as the first Director of Film/Video, bringing his expertise in classical and experimental exhibition. From 1985 to 1999, Jenkins expanded the collection through projects with visiting filmmakers and artist-in-residence programs, initiating the prestigious Regis Dialogue series, which showcases the work of distinguished directors and actors and features onstage dialogues between artists and noted critics, and screenings by Marcel Broodthaers, John Cassavetes, Jonathan Demme, Dennis Hopper, William Klein, Louis Malle, and others. In 1990, Jenkins established the Ruben Cinematheque program to regularly screen prints from the collection. During his tenure, the film department played a major role in exhibitions such as 2000 B.C.: THE BRUCE CONNER STORY PART II (1999), Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” (1995), and In the Spirit of Fluxus (1993).
The presentation of contemporary world cinema was expanded through the Walker’s Bush Global Initiative by Cis Bierinckx, who served as curator from 2000 to 2002. His programs included an emphasis on Music + Film co-presentations, for which films from the collection are screened with a live score.
Currently overseen by Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley, who began her tenure at Walker in 1998, the focus has remained on preservation, access, and exhibition of the collection. With Mousley’s commitment to experimental artists through the series Expanding the Frame and global filmmakers through groundbreaking exhibitions by artists such as Zhao Liang and Yto Barrada, along with the ongoing cinema program of international films, the collection has grown to include works by Peggy Ahwesh, Ericka Beckman, Zhang Bo, Paul Chan, Abigail Childs, Jem Cohen, Allen Downs, Bill Morrison, Spencer Nakasako, Pat O’Neill, Miranda Pennell, and Benita Raphan. In conjunction with its commitment to presenting and preserving moving images on film, the Walker also encourages experimentation in new media. In 2012, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) was the first in a series of artist commissions for the Walker Channel. New commissions include artists Leslie Thorton, Shahryar Nashat, and Uri Aran last year.
Documentation of many of the Regis/Walker Dialogue and Film Retrospective programs presented by Mousley since 1999 have entered the collection and are also on the Walker Channel, including Robert Redford, Todd Haynes, Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach, Harry Belafonte, Claire Denis, Miloš Forman, Lawrence Kasdan, Ang Lee, Mike Leigh, Steve McQueen, Alexander Payne, Béla Tarr, Lili Taylor, and Agnès Varda.
Recent acquisitions also include a donation of American avant-garde film prints by Sally Dixon in 2005, which were screened in the 2012 exhibition The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film 1960–1973.

Preservation, Digitization, and Exhibition

Preservation of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection has become more important as celluloid film prints and video tapes begin to age. In 1997, the Walker Archives (est. 1994) assumed the task of creating an inventory of the collection. Its responsibilities included a renewed effort at preserving film prints, conducting provenance research, tracing provenance records, obtaining exhibition rights to films, and acquiring preservation masters. With a generous gift from Edward R. Ruben’s daughter Nancy Bentson and her husband, Larry Bentson, in 1999, the Walker Film/Video department established the Bentson Family Fund for the Acquisition, Conservation, and Presentation of Film. Over the next 10 years, this fund allowed for the expansion and preservation of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, while supporting innovative programs such as the dynamic cross-disciplinary series Music + Film, presented at the Walker from 1999 to the present.

The continued support of the Ruben and Bentson families has been essential to the development of the collection and its exhibition. In 2011, the Walker received another major grant from the Bentson Foundation to continue preservation, exhibition, and presentation efforts. These efforts included the hiring of a dedicated Bentson Archivist/ Programmer and the production of the Walker Film/Video Oral History Project, which features former Walker Film/Video programmers, directors, and curators in 2013. Over the past year, several hundred films were digitized or digital versions of films were purchased for presentation on new platforms. Forty-three new works by artists already in the collections, such as Peggy Ahwesh, Hollis Frampton, Bill Morrison, Pat O’Neill, and Michael Snow, were also purchased to augment the current holdings of contemporary avant-garde filmmakers. Continuing the commitment to screening films in original formats while anticipating innovative moving image technologies, the Walker Cinema and Bentson Mediatheque underwent renovations to include 4K Digital Cinema Package projection as well as 16mm and 35mm Kinoton projectors in the Cinema. “From digitizing 16mm and 35mm films prints to upgrading our cinema to become a state-of-the-art exhibition facility,” says Mousley, “we show the films to much wider audiences while continuing to present them in their original formats to scholars and students.”

Research and scholarship

Over the past year, work to preserve and digitize the collection was foregrounded to create a resource for the growing world of film scholarship and critical writing. With a range of films from a rare print of a silent classic Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) to Michael Snow’s classic structural film Wavelength (1967), the collection offers a rare diversity of titles and topics that merit close study, evaluation, and theoretical interrogation. The Benston Critical Group has been established, a group of local artists, critics, academics and writers who meet monthly in the Bentson Mediatheque to discuss and watch titles from the collection. In addition, our dedicated Bentson Scholar, as well as commissioned scholars explore the collection through articles written for the Walker website.

For more information about the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, contact movingimage@walkerart.org. Films from the collection are programmed regularly onsite. For inquiries that concern viewing a specific title for scholarly purposes, including class screenings, please contact movingimage@walkerart.org. A list of films is available upon request.