Program Notes: Minding and Mining the Archives


Some of the more than 400 cubic feet of boxes, books, and other ephemera left behind when the Department of Film and Video closed in the early 2000s.

In September, we began working on an exciting new archival initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA). In 2011, the museum received an AW Mellon grant to preserve and create access points for its time-based media artworks. The project has many components and one of them is the formation of the Department of Film and Video archive. The Department of Film and Video, which was active at CMOA beginning in 1970, was responsible for acquiring the majority of the time-based media artworks in the museum’s collection. By preserving its records, we are working to recover the valuable context in which the artworks were acquired and maintaining the department’s incredible legacy.

When the Department of Film and Video closed, it left behind an entire office of materials—everything from memos to installation photographs to projection equipment manuals. We have more than 400 cubic feet of boxes, books, and other ephemera. Just imagine about 400 banker boxes or the space inside a large walk-in closet. It is a huge body of records and its size is only matched by the value of its contents. The Department of Film and Video was one of the first of its kind in the country and it helped usher in a whole new era for moving image programming at museums and film venues across the country.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades of growth for independent film in Pittsburgh. When the Department of Film and Video opened its doors, other film organizations around the city were also developing. The New Cinema Workshop opened in Shadyside and Pittsburgh Independent Film-Makers Inc., now Pittsburgh Filmmakers, soon followed. Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and other learning institutions in the region also joined in, producing budding filmmakers and sponsoring screenings. Artists and film enthusiasts like Willard Van De Bogart, founder of the New Cinema Workshop; Bob Costa, the first director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers; and Sally Dixon, the first curator in the Department of Film and Video at CMOA, nurtured this creative environment and facilitated opportunities for independent filmmakers and artists throughout the city.


Program notes mailed to the Department of Film and Video from various theaters, venues, and film organizations. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

The Department of Film and Video archive documents all of this information and more. It contains correspondence with artists, daily office records, promotional broadsides, photographs of events and installations, and information about city and regional film organizations. We are working to preserve this fascinating history and create access points for anyone interested in the medium.

Processing the archive—a term archivists use for arranging, preserving, and describing archival records—will take a minimum of one year to complete, maybe more depending on the complexity of the materials. We will assess all the paper records, photographs, and media; house them in stable, acid-free boxes, folders, and other containers; and finally, describe and record them in a finding aid. The finding aid will serve as a research guide for years and generations to come.

Last week we processed a box of program notes, which are essentially schedules or calendars of events that were published by the Department of Film and Video and circulated throughout the city (see here). For the first few years, the department published their program notes quarterly and listed schedules for film and video screenings. They also included information like short descriptions as well as visiting filmmakers and workshops. As programming became more diverse and video made its way into the galleries, the department began publishing the notes bi-monthly in order to include the growing number of screenings and events both in the theater and in the exhibitions.


Program Note from 1970. Image: Department of Film and Video archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Generally speaking, program notes or calendars are a primary way in which non-theatrical movie theaters and film venues (like CMOA) reach the public and promote screenings, and vice versa. The public, or more specifically cinephiles, have come to expect program notes from their favorite film spots. While each theater designs them differently, program notes are all essentially the same. They list films that are playing and highlight special events, premieres, and film series. Before the Internet, program notes were vital to communication between theaters and audiences and are still used by many venues today. In fact, we just received one from the Bell LightBox in Toronto a few weeks ago.

The archive contains nearly every program note published by CMOA, and together they help illustrate the multifaceted history of the department. In addition to noting what films the department screened, they detail changes in programming schedules, lecture series, curatorial interests, and even departmental staff over the years. The program notes will serve as fantastic resources for future researchers who might be curious about what screened at the museum, who visited, when programing influenced acquisitions, and how the moving image has evolved since the early 1970s.

Because of their value, we will be digitizing the program notes and many other notable materials in the archive. The full finding aid and scanned material will be accessible via a portal on the CMOA website.

The Department of Film and Video left behind an amazing legacy, which the entire Time-Based Media Project team is working to preserve. The archive will provide an exciting new level of visibility and access to the history of the department as well as the people who influenced it and the significant collection of time-based media artworks it acquired.

Program Notes is an ongoing series that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.