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It says something about Sally Dixon's ambition and moxie that she learned to fly before she could legally drive. At 16, she took off in the family plane, admiring the view before landing safely in a field.

A charismatic go-getter with a discerning eye, Dixon, 87, died Tuesday in the car of her son, Alexander, as he was fulfilling her last wish by taking her out of hospice and driving her home.

Dixon had Alzheimer's and cancer.

"She's flying high into new adventures now," said her son, a chef and restaurateur also known as Zander Dixon. "Of all the conditions to befall her in the last few years, having aphasia and losing the words to speak was probably torture for her. Talking and interacting with people was the reason she existed."

An influential pioneer in film, literature and visual arts, Dixon left her mark nationally and in the Twin Cities. In 1970, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art hired her as its first film curator — and only the second in the nation. During her five-year tenure, she helped contextualize the works of avant-garde filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, James Broughton and Jonas Mekas. She advocated paying filmmakers for their works.

"That's widespread today, but it wasn't seen that way before that," said Melinda Ward, former film curator at Walker Art Center, where she first worked with Dixon. "Sally helped write the guidelines for the NEA media arts grants. Her influence is in the art world's DNA."

Dixon left the Pittsburgh museum after learning that she was being paid considerably less than her male counterparts, eventually moving to the Twin Cities. In her new home, she became interim director of Film in the Cities, which taught generations of filmmakers and screened films. She also collaborated with places such as the Walker to present avant-garde works. Dixon donated copies of 30 films from her collection to the Walker.

She championed Twin Cities artists of all stripes as the first head of the Bush Foundation's artist fellowship program, a post she held from 1980 to 1996.

"She was really expansive not just in her love of art, but in her friendship and interests," poet G.E. Patterson added. "I can't think of another philanthropist who had a deeper appreciation of the work of artists."

A bon vivant, Dixon also was legendary for hosting parties where she introduced people whom she thought should know one another.

"She radiated joy and integrity in a way that was enormously uplifting," said Fiona McCrae, publisher and editor of Graywolf Press, where Dixon served as a board member. "It's impossible to think of her without feeling touched all over again by her enormous heart."

Born in Seattle to Fred Foy, a businessman who headed Koppers Co., and Elizabeth Hamilton Foy, an international collector of textiles and ceramics, Dixon grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., Detroit and Pittsburgh. Endlessly curious and adventurous, she studied at what became Chatham University but cut short her education to have a family. She had three sons with her first husband, John Dixon. She also was married to physicist and photographer Ricardo Bloch.

Besides Zander, she is survived by sons John Dixon Jr. of Thurmont, Md., and Steve Dixon of Lee, Mass.; brother Fred Foy Jr. of Sapphire, N.C., and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in January at the Walker.

Brigid Maher, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., is making a documentary about Dixon.

"Owing to the norms of the time, Sally has been woefully overlooked in cinema history and is an uncredited producer for the works of many of these filmmakers," Maher said. "She's the source of the constellation — whole worlds connected through her."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390