Remembering Claudine

Maurine Knighton

Note: In the print edition of the GIA Reader, this piece appeared with a reprint of Claudine Brown’s article “Experience as Research” from the Fall 2013 edition of GIA Reader. You can read that article at

“For me, leadership in this field is about appreciating who does good work, who has good ideas, and how that can be cumulated in a way that makes people feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves.” This is how Claudine Brown answered my question about how she defined leadership in the field of arts and social justice and beyond. Her answer was elegant and clear; its simplicity belies, however, the fact that it’s much easier said than done. As we know full well, one of philanthropy’s pitfalls is how easy it is to mistakenly believe one has more wisdom, knowledge, and answers than those on the ground doing the work we value. Taken to its extreme, such an idea could ultimately even be counterproductive to the goals we espouse. Claudine understood this pitfall and embraced the power of humility. She valued the inherent intelligence of communities and believed that the arts were a key to supporting their long-term vibrancy and resilience.

I met Claudine when she was the program director for arts and culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF). Right away, I recognized her quiet strength, keen intellect, and fabulous sense of humor. Over time, I came to fully appreciate just how dynamic, multidimensional, and powerful she was. At NCF, she provided essential support to the field of community arts through funding for professional development, youth development, and organizational capacity building. While she remained committed to this work throughout her tenure, she recognized the need to stay connected to those communities she intended to benefit, and to take her lead from them. In due course, this led her to extend her work beyond community arts and to eventually focus explicitly on arts and social justice.

Claudine Brown

The example she set of “leading from behind” directly and indirectly influenced an impressive group of arts and social justice workers. Ultimately, Claudine’s body of work provided us with an important set of lessons that continue to resonate, shaping contemporary arts and culture ecology. Here are just a few:

  • Listen often and well. She believed that being a good listener was key to her success. Listening is an underestimated skill, but hearing from others about their interests and ideas often provides indispensable insights and information. It also supports the ability to recognize patterns and develop appropriate responses.
  • Seek the advice and counsel of the people we hope to support to define problems and craft solutions. This is a corollary to the previous idea, and it demands patience, discipline, and generosity of spirit.
  • Be willing to take risks. She took chances with her grantmaking even as she understood that some risks would not pay off. “Some grantees were long shots,” she told me. In the end, we always gain information that will expand our learning and analysis of our strengths.
  • Build community however and whenever you can. Community building means extending our work beyond grant awards. In other words, it is just as important to provide opportunities to convene people regularly and facilitate their connections as it is to award them financial support.
  • Reject proscribed notions of the place and potential impact of artists in our society. Reductive thinking about the role of art and artists’ works narrows the possibilities for fresh thinking and new solutions and also underestimates art’s beauty and power.

Claudine was one of a kind, but I was only one among many who admired and appreciated her. She galvanized colleagues to begin coalescing as a field, exchanging knowledge, nurturing talent, and leveraging power. She helped us name our work and begin to realize its collective impact. Her prescience affirmed what many of us knew instinctively: that the emerging field of arts and social justice held great promise for creating a richer, more vibrant society.

Claudine’s work at the Nathan Cummings Foundation was only one aspect of her gifts; she could have done any number of things just as well as she did her philanthropic work. She was also an attorney and a powerful and effective leader at Grantmakers in the Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian, among other places. She was a gifted visual artist with interests in photography, quilts, and other media. I learned this when I first visited her at home and saw the striking collages adorning her walls. In fact, when I joined NCF, my new office contained a number of small, delicate sculptures she had created. I never took them down, and they made me feel like she was always there with me.

One more thing: Claudine was deeply devoted to family, and that was at the root of everything she did. More than once I had the privilege of hearing her stories about growing up. Her grandmother featured prominently in those, and I got the sense that the values Claudine held dear had been passed down to her from her ancestors like the most precious of heirlooms. She handled those heirlooms with care and respect and passed them on to her beloved sons and grandchildren. She extended that care and devotion to the “beloved community,” and that showed up in the way she honored indigenous genius and cultivated the field. Her work at NCF built the foundation for mine. I stand on her shoulders and will always be grateful.