By Fall 2008 Intern Lauren Goldenberg
On October 1st, Kartemquin Films officially unveiled the appointment of new Executive Director, Justine Nagan. Selected at the end of an executive search process, Justine has been with the non-profit since 2003 in a variety of positions, most recently as Associate Director. In his announcement of the transition, founder Gordon Quinn expressed strong confidence in Justine and excitement at the opportunity to finally move away from administrative responsibilities in order to focus on the challenges of his new role as Kartemquin’s Creative Director.
The position will allow Gordon to pursue what he has been most interested in doing all along—filmmaking—with more time to assist other filmmakers with their documentaries, and an opportunity to complete some endeavors of his own. Gordon is currently directing _Prisoner of Her Past_, developing several new projects, and finishing a film begun in the 1960s on the Chicago school boycotts.
Finding a successor has been a long time goal for Kartemquin, and Gordon has always had his eye out for the right person, even before Kartemquin launched into a 3-year leadership succession and strategic plan in 2005. Jerry Blumenthal, who has been with the company since its inception in 1966, notes that Gordon has been trying to find someone “for as long as I can remember,” to the point that the search became a standing joke between them. Today’s leadership transition is the culmination of the first phase of the strategic planning process, a phase that also included establishing a working Board of Directors and formalizing the managerial and non-profit structure of Kartemquin.
In planning the executive search, Kartemquin’s board and filmmaking community were clear. The ideal leader would be someone who had a passion for documentary filmmaking—of course—but who could also continue to improve the organization’s internal structure, lead initiatives to broaden the organization’s fiscal base, and focus on outreach, development and distribution. The search for such a person began in earnest when Kartemquin received crucial funding from The Ford Foundation and The John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation in 2007, support that Gordon stresses has been essential to implementing the transition.
Enter Justine, who has “the ability and the interest in marketing, distribution, and administrative tasks indispensable for the position,” said Jerry. That Justine “really understands what she wants to dedicate herself to” in terms of leading Kartemquin, is “exceptional,” he adds. Gordon expressed a similar sentiment, noting that “Justine has a real desire to lead,” which he feels is critical for the job, and joking that she will have the added joy of looking into “cans of worms I have left around.”
Justine is well situated for the challenge. Before coming to Kartemquin, she gained experience working for media institutions both large and small, including Wisconsin Public Television and Radio, the Chicago International Film Festival, and The History Makers, to name a just a few. Justine received her Master's Degree in the Humanities with an emphasis on Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago in 2004. In addition to her staff duties at Kartemquin, Justine has served as an Associate Producer (on Kartemquin’s _Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita_, broadcast nationally on PBS’ _Independent Lens_ in early 2008) and has helped develop several other projects. She’s currently in the process of completing the documentary _Typeface_, her directorial debut with the company.
Though it means relinquishing her filmmaking activities for at least a few years, Justine is energized about taking on the responsibilities of non-profit leadership, and feels privileged to be given the opportunity. She explains that as witness to all the hard work that went into the strategic plan, she’s been given an in-depth understanding of the scope of the position. In her time at Kartemquin, she’s already made significant strides in organizational strategizing, including re-inventing the internship program, and pushing distribution and sales efforts. She now plans to work on building a sustainable institutional base that focuses not only on documentary production, which will remain at the core of Kartemquin’s mission, but also on the organization’s place in the larger independent media community.
Kartemquin is committed to taking advantage of the possibilities that have arisen from the emerging new media landscape. Areas of exploration may include more short film projects, delving into web-based media, and expanded online distribution. At the same time, Kartemquin’s legacy is very important to Justine, and it’s something that she intends to sustain and share by re-releasing older Kartemquin classics. The timing is right for the new initiatives; in the past several months, Kartemquin has released three feature length documentaries (_At the Death House Door_, _In the Family_, _Milking the Rhino_) and is slated to complete two more before the end of the year (_Typeface_, _Prisoner of Her Past_). “We’re in an excellent place to capitalize on the momentum, both with long-time associates and new voices really making a mark,” asserts Justine.
The success of the strategic plan is not only important to Kartemquin for its own sake, but also holds importance for the organization as part of a community of nonprofits facing the need to firmly establish themselves for the future. Both Justine and Gordon emphasize the significance of this aspect of the transition. As an organization that has sustained itself for over 40 years and is strongly embracing its presence in the future, Kartemquin can hopefully be a model to other institutions founded in the 1960s, “facing the similar predicament of how to stay alive and viable once the founders step down.”
Justine’s passion for and commitment to Kartemquin embody the spirit that has fortified the organization for the past four and a half decades. When asked about where she sees Kartemquin’s place in the future, she quotes Gordon Quinn, “We only deserve to exist as long as we are relevant.” Under Justine’s energetic leadership, and Gordon’s thoughtful and creative guidance, Kartemquin is truly poised to embrace a vital—and relevant—future.
Read full bios of Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan, and Kartemquin’s board of directors on the website.