Writer and film historian Joseph Dispenza began the first iteration of the College of Santa Fe film program in 1987, after a serendipitous meeting at a local ice cream shop with actress Greer Garson. Garson had already proved herself as an indispensable benefactor of the college. Called communication arts, the film program offered courses in media management, media production, and media writing, criticism, theory, and history.
Garson provided $150,000 for the new program and, later, $3 million — the school’s largest monetary gift — for the establishment of a new communications center in her name, which began construction in 1989. The Garson Communications Center and Studios, built on the site of a former gymnasium, opened in October of the following year. In addition to educational space, the facility housed two professional sound stages that are still used today for film and television productions. The art-house movie theater The Screen opened in the Communications Center in 1998. The popular venue closed on April 30, 2018.
From its early days, the film program, later known as moving image arts, attracted a roster of talented educators. Among the notable names is Gene Youngblood, a former associate editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Free Press who was a founding member of the film and video faculty at California Institute of the Arts. He taught at the College of Santa Fe until 2007. Jonathan Wacks was named chair of the Moving Image Arts department in 1994. Wacks, now a professor of film at Brooklyn College, was an experienced director and producer who made Powwow Highway (1989) and produced Repo Man (1984). “Under Jonathan I would say it was a visionary department,” said former moving image arts faculty member David Stout, who worked at CSF from the early 1990s until around the time of the closure. He is now a professor of composition studies at the College of Music, University of North Texas. “It was entrepreneurial and it was a department that would take risks. In a sense, you could probably say that was the second phase or the maturing phase of the department.”
Under Wacks, the program was eclectic, unmoored from being solely about film or film production. Youngblood, for instance, was an early proponent of video as an art form, a subject he wrote about in his 1970 book Expanded Cinema. And Stout came to the school as a video artist. “I worked with the freshman students on the foundational principles of the moving image. I also taught things like video editing and sound design,” he said. Stout directed a recurring interdisciplinary class project called “Installation, Performance, and Interactivity.” “My approach was more fine art and experimental: interactive, sculptural installation, real-time media, performance. A lot of my students now work at Meow Wolf.”
“It was a really strong program,” said Deborah Fort, a filmmaker and now the associate chair and associate professor of cinematic arts at the University of New Mexico. “Jonathan Wacks came from an industry background, but he was also really supportive of all different kinds of expression.” Fort started teaching in the department around the same time as Stout did. During her tenure, moving image arts had a thesis program that engaged students in collaborative projects, combining activities in directing, cinematography, editing, and writing, all of which was augmented by critical studies in film theory and history. “It was a very competitive program, nationally, in terms of the faculty and the student work that was produced,” she said. Fort started a summer program for high-school girls at the college called Girls Film School, which put emphasis on women in production roles. “Jonathan started a program that was like a certificate program for people who maybe already had a degree but wanted to gain skills in filmmaking,” she added. “That was also supported by the state in their various film initiatives.”
The film program continued under different leadership after the transition to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, changing its name from moving image arts to the film school. After SFUAD closes its doors, one remnant of the College of Santa Fe’s high-achieving engagement with moving images will live on — the Garson Studios.