Marla Berns, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum, to retire

Noble Horvath

After nearly two decades of service leading one of the world’s top museums focusing on the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the indigenous Americas, Marla Berns, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, will retire at the end of the 2020-21 academic […]

After nearly two decades of service leading one of the world’s top museums focusing on the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the indigenous Americas, Marla Berns, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, will retire at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

During her tenure, Berns has overseen more than 170 exhibitions, 44 publications and thousands of public programs at the Fowler.

“Marla Berns has been an exceptional leader of the Fowler Museum for nearly 20 years, and a scholar of art history and world cultures with a profound commitment to justice and equity,” said Brett Steele, dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. “Under Marla’s leadership, the museum didn’t just bring global cultures to our doorstep, it awakened us to a richer diversity of human experience.”

Berns, born and raised in Los Angeles, is a triple alumna of UCLA. She received her B.A. in art history in 1973; her M.A. in art history in 1976, with a focus on the arts of Africa and Oceania; and a Ph.D. in art history in 1986, specializing in African art. 

“I’m grateful to have spent so many years sharing my love for global arts and cultures with a wide audience on and off campus,” Berns said. “I look forward to seeing the Fowler continue to be a hub for discovery and innovation and community engagement. Our world needs to respect and honor the power and beauty of cultural diversity now more than ever.”

Prior to her tenure at the Fowler, Berns was director of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara for 10 years. 

Her research and writing has concentrated on women’s arts of northeastern Nigeria, where she did fieldwork in the early 1980s, and encompasses ceramic sculpture, decorated gourds and programs of body scarification. She has published and lectured widely on these topics.

Berns’ initial engagement with the Fowler dates back to 1978, when she was the first African art intern at the previously named UCLA Museum of Cultural History. She organized her first major traveling exhibition at the museum in 1986 accompanied by her first exhibition catalogue, co-authored with Barbara Rubin Hudson, called “The Essential Gourd: Art and History in Northeastern Nigeria.”

When the new museum building opened in 1992, the name was changed to the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Berns became the director in 2001 and made museum admission free to all. In 2006, the name was changed to Fowler Museum at UCLA.

In 2007, UCLA philanthropists Shirley and Ralph Shapiro endowed the Fowler’s directorship in recognition of Berns’ contributions to UCLA and the museum.

In 2013, Berns received the medal of chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic in a ceremony at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris at the same time the Fowler traveling exhibition, “Art of the Lega,” was on view.

In 2014, Berns wrote a comprehensive history of the Fowler in honor of its 50th anniversary, published as “World Arts, Local Lives: The Collections of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.” To celebrate this milestone, she also spearheaded “Fowler at Fifty,” an exhibition initiative that filled the museum’s galleries with more than 1000 objects from the permanent collections.

Berns oversaw a wide variety of exhibitions at the Fowler, such as: African contemporary fashion; ceramics of Papua New Guinea; textiles by women weavers from Indonesia; the art and history of tea; art from around the world responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis; photographic explorations of India, Morocco, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere; the art of African blacksmiths; and Latino popular religious art in Los Angeles.

She brought global perspectives to the Western discourse

Under her leadership, the Fowler has also exhibited the work of international contemporary artists, presenting them within complex frameworks of politics, culture and social action. These artworks often investigate the complex topics at the heart of our contemporary discourse, including racism, discrimination, immigration, colonialism and cultural appropriation. 

Throughout her tenure, the Fowler has presented several much-praised solo exhibitions, including the work of the celebrated Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (2007); Nick Cave and his riotous “soundsuits” (2010); Cuban painter José Bedia (2011); Chicano artist and activist José Montoya (2016); Afro-Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayon (2016-17); Botswana-born and UCLA-trained painter Meleko Mokgosi (2018); and India-born artist and sculptor Rina Banerjee (2019 -20).

While directing the Fowler, Berns continued her scholarly work as a curator of exhibitions, and a contributor to publications as a specialist in the arts of Northeastern Nigeria. Berns also curated or co-curated international traveling exhibitions that debuted at the Fowler including “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley” (2011) and “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths” (2018), both of which subsequently made stops at venues such as Stanford’s Cantor Art Center, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. 

Berns oversaw substantial growth in the Fowler’s vast global permanent collections, which now numbers more than 125,000 works. Highlights include donations of sculpture by Lega artists of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; ceramics from Vietnam; masks from Guatemala; bronze oil lamps from India; textiles from Indonesia and Southeast Asia; silk robes from Syria; contemporary art from Haiti; and the arts of priests and shamans from Vietnam and Southern China.

As a university museum, the Fowler also has built close relationships with UCLA faculty and students, and its staff and collections have always been available for teaching and research. Over the past 20 years, faculty from across campus also have served as exhibition guest curators, publication authors, and speakers for many Fowler programs. Free for all, the Fowler has welcomed the entire campus community.

Under her leadership, the Fowler has evolved into not only one of the most remarkable museums of its kind in the world, but into a cultural center with a rich offering of multi-generational public programming, from lectures and symposia to concerts, dance performances, and hands-on art making programs for families.

A passionate and dedicated advocate for the arts, Berns has helped build a loyal audience and secure support for the Fowler. She raised more than a million dollars to open the first long-term exhibition of the permanent collections “Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives” in 2006. She endowed the position of curator of African arts in 2011 and secured a $15 million pledge of operating support in 2016, both from longtime supporters Jay and Deborah Last. And she received in 2019 a $600,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to further scholarship on the Fowler’s African art collections. 

UCLA will be announcing a search for a new director of the Fowler Museum shortly.

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