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A New Day for Docs: Michael Lumpkin Steps in as IDA's Executive Director

By Tamara Krinsky

Michael Lumpkin recently took the reins as IDA’s new executive director, following a distinguished 25-year tenure at Frameline, the well-regarded San Francisco-based LGBT media arts organization. Documentary spoke with Lumpkin, just after his first week at IDA and just before he took off for Sundance, about his tenure at Frameline, his aims and objectives for IDA and the challenges that lie ahead.


Looking back over your time at Frameline, what are some of the projects and/or accomplishments of which you’re especially proud?

Michael Lumpkin: I am especially proud of being able to establish Frameline as the world’s leading LGBT media arts organization, a position the organization has held for more than 30 years. Contributing to that success and international reputation are Frameline’s other programs, Frameline Distribution and Frameline’s Completion Fund program, which I established during my time with the organization. The “home” of Frameline’s LGBT film festival is the 1500-seat Castro Theatre, a grand movie palace built in 1922, and often during the festival the place is packed to the rafters. There’s nothing like watching a film with that audience, all of them discovering a new film, a new story, a new experience in unison.


At Frameline, you held a number of positions, ranging from festival director to executive director, and you served on the organization’s board of directors. You’ve also been a hands-on producer with projects such as The Celluloid Closet. How do you anticipate that these varied experiences will help in your role as executive director of IDA?

I know that I’ll be drawing on all of that experience. The mandate I have received from IDA’s board of directors is to take the organization to new levels of professionalism and program development, and ensure that IDA and its programs are serving the documentary field as we move through a very dynamic and challenging time. To be successful will require everyone involved with IDA--the board, trustees, staff and members--to be fully engaged with the organization and its mission. My job as executive director is to create and manage an organizational structure that allows everyone involved to do their best and to bring all of their talents and resources to the table.


What are three films that have deeply affected either your life or your work?

First and foremost is The Celluloid Closet, which I co-produced with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Working on this major documentary gave me invaluable, hands-on experience in documentary film production. I came away from that five-year project with tremendous understanding and respect for the work, commitment and artistry of documentary filmmakers.

Another film that has affected me on many levels is Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied. When it was released in 1990--and still today--it set the standards for the personal documentary. Again, it was a film to which I was relatively close, knowing Marlon while he was in production and later releasing the film through Frameline Distribution. The third would be a Hitchcock film, and I’m not going to try to pick one. No matter how many times I watch one of his films (and he is one of the few directors whose films I can watch over and over), I am always struck by his efficiency, his ability to put so much on the screen in so little time.


Frameline and IDA both support filmmakers in similar areas, albeit through different programs. What did you learn at Frameline that will most inform your new position with IDA?

Much of Frameline’s success was due to the very supportive and engaged community. That led to a great sense of ownership of the organization and was the source for most of Frameline’s financial support.


Frameline has had a lot of success in fundraising. How can nonprofit arts organizations weather the current economic crisis?

I did weather a couple of economic downturns with Frameline, but by all indications, this one is going to be much more of a challenge. My primary goal is for IDA to get through what will be a very challenging year relatively unscathed. That will undoubtedly require some belt-tightening as well as some very careful management by both the board and myself.

For me, a key to survival will be how we will approach the situation at hand. Yes, it’s going to be tough and require a lot of work, but I know from experience that an economic crisis presents opportunities--opportunities to change, build new alliances and reconnect with your mission.


Both Frameline and IDA have long, established histories. What are some key elements to keeping an arts organization alive and flourishing?

Building a strong community was key to Frameline’s success, and in my short time on the job here, it is very clear to me that community is a large part of IDA’s longevity and success. Every day I have received calls and e-mails from filmmakers, founders and former board members. They are calling to welcome me (and often to offer advice), but what comes across with each and every one is a love for and commitment to IDA. The community that comes together around a shared mission is core to every nonprofit organization. I am very encouraged by the IDA community and know it will provide us with a secure foundation as we move forward.


Aside from funding, what are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for IDA?

I feel that the rapidly changing media environment is a significant challenge—for IDA and for the film industry as a whole. So many aspects of media are in flux: how we consume media, how we conduct business, how revenue moves through these new models. It’s new, different and moving very fast.

In adapting to the changing Web 2.0 landscape, partnerships are key, as well as having a realistic perspective on what the appropriate role of a nonprofit organization should be in this sort of environment.


You’re not just changing jobs; you’re also changing cities. What will you miss most about the San Francisco Bay Area? What are you most looking forward to about Los Angeles?

I have always had strong connections with Los Angeles in both my personal and professional lives, so in many ways it has been an easy move. I will miss the familiar, the parts of your life that become routine from living in the same city for over 30 years, the landscape, the people, the food. What I am looking forward to is discovering all of that all over again in Los Angeles.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.