The De Wolfe Questionnaire: Janet Brown, Arts Advocate

What's the next act for this veteran arts administrator? (Hint: it might be boxing or tennis!)


It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Janet Brown made as President and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts over her nine-year tenure. She pushed for diversity at all levels in arts organizations and called for more grants, in both number and amount, specifically for innovation and reserve funds. For many years, she also taught public policy and the arts for the Masters in Arts Administration program at Goucher College, introducing graduate students to such luminaries as Jonathan Katz, now-retired CEO from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and Robert Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts — the latter gave Brown its Selina Roberts Ottum Award for Arts Leadership in 1999 while she served as Executive Director of Arts South Dakota. Even though Brown officially retired at the end of 2017, she paved many new paths for artists and administrators across the country.

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What is your idea of perfect happiness? Having accomplished something successful that I hoped to do.

What is your greatest fear? Aside from always worrying about my children (a lifelong mother thing), I don’t generally focus on fear and always think there are ways to get out of most situations. However, I am deathly afraid of snakes.

Which level of government is most pertinent in your occupation? For all of my career, national, state and local governmental policies have affected the arts and my work as an advocate, both in dollars and access.

Which living person do you most admire? This is impossible for me to answer because I have been so fortunate to know and work with amazing teachers, philanthropists and artists. I’ll take the easy answer and say my kids (who are both theater professionals) and my brother, Dick. In terms of people I don’t know, I’d say Warren Buffett, a great example of a philanthropist who lives his values.

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Which historical figure do you most admire? All the strong women who came before me that set an example of what women can do, despite the barriers in place. They paved the way for my success and I hope I’ve also paved the way for younger women.

What is your greatest extravagance? Watching TV. It’s definitely a great time for dramatic content on the little screen. I’m a tennis fanatic and so having the Tennis Channel is one extravagance I grant myself.

What is your greatest achievement? All the relationships throughout a 40-year career that are still with me today. Networking comes naturally to me and little did I know that keeping people close would be so gratifying as I grew older. Other than that, and my kids and jobs, I’d say learning to ski in the Alps when I was 30 and the last four years training as a boxer.

What is the most overrated virtue? I’m not sure this is a virtue, but I’d say self-righteousness. No judging.

What quality do you most like in a man? A sense of humor.

What quality do you most like in a woman? A sense of sisterhood.

Which words or phrases do you overuse? “Like” and “you know” and “um.”

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What or who was the greatest love of your life? I had many “loves of my life” over the past 50 years, both professionally and personally. The ones that stuck are my two children. They are my heart and soul, always have been.

When or where were/are you happiest? This may be contradictory, but that’s not surprising: I am happiest when I’m working with arts groups, funders and artists as teacher, speaker and facilitator, and also happiest when I’m home alone doing nothing.

What talent would you most like to have? I’ve always thought I wanted to be an author of fiction but really, I would have loved to be a “triple threat” theater artist: singer, dancer, actor. I did all three when I first started my career but I wasn’t a “threat” to anyone.

What is your most marked characteristic? Honesty, authenticity and forthrightness. Pretty hard for me not to say what I’m thinking.

Where would you most like to live? I’ve just chosen to “go home” to South Dakota, so this is the place I’d most like to live.

What do you most value in your friends? Empathy, loyalty and honesty.

What profession other than your own would you like to try? Growing up, I was a jock; I’ve always loved competition. If I had been born a few years later I would have had the benefits of Title IX and become a women’s softball or basketball coach.

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Who are you currently following in (pick any or all):
Books: John Le Carre is my favorite author. I am a huge espionage fan. Just finished his autobiography. I’m also a science fiction and fantasy fan so I’ve read all Game Of Thrones, Lord Of The Rings, Outlander, Harry Potter. I live in a fantasy world in my mind and dreams, often.
Visual: I was never really educated in visual art but have had many friends over the years who have helped me understand art movements. It’s important to me that all my own artwork comes from artists I know and love.
Music: Although I love all music, I’m a musical theater fanatic. I was an early and remain a huge fan of Hamilton. Love it all.
Theater: See answer to “music.”

Who is your hero/heroine in fiction? This is tough. I’d say George Smiley from Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Always calm under pressure, always strategic, always steps ahead of everyone in his thinking things through, moral, ethical and stoic.

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What is your greatest regret? That I didn’t start boxing when I was 12 and that I never owned my own horse.

What excites you in your own creative practice? That it’s so unfocused on one thing.

Where is your “third place”? Ireland and Scotland, in my head and fantasies.

What is your motto? “It never hurts to ask,” is something I’ve always lived by. Also, four pieces of advice from a mentor years ago: 1) never assume anything; 2) when in doubt, do nothing; 3) no action is an action; and 4) don’t mess around in your own backyard. There are a lot of men today who are sorry they didn’t follow that last piece of advice as women en masse are standing up to discrimination, harassment and humiliation. It’s our time — take it and don’t waste it.