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UCLA’s Fowler Museum director is retiring after nearly two decades

Fowler Museum Director Marla Berns with Richard Montoya, reviewing some of his father's drawings in 2016.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

In 1973, in her senior year at UCLA, Marla Berns was sitting in a darkened lecture hall for a class about the arts of the Pacific when her professor, Arnold Rubin, projected images onto an overhead screen that would change her life: masqueraders emerging from a ceremonial house in Papua, New Guinea. It sparked a passion for global arts and culture that would shape her career and propel her to nearly two decades as director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

On Friday, the Fowler Museum announced that Berns will retire at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

Berns said that the most satisfying aspect of her tenure has been “the opportunity to share the work of artists little known to most people, even in the art world, and the ability to dig deeply into why people make and use objects in their lives. It’s also been the ability to take risks at a museum where experimentation has always been highly valued.”

Berns came to the museum in 2001 from the then-named University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara, where she served as director for 10 years. But her relationship with the university began long before that. She’s a “triple alumna” of UCLA, with three art history degrees from the university — bachelor’s, master’s and PhD, the latter two specializing in African art. She was the museum’s first African Art intern in 1978, when it was called the UCLA Museum of Cultural History. Over the years, as an art history scholar, she has focused her research and writing on women’s arts of northeastern Nigeria.

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Berns-by-the-numbers at the museum: more than 170 exhibitions, 44 publications and thousands of public programs. She grew the museum’s permanent collections to more than 125,000 objects from about 110,000. She also raised more than a million dollars for the museum’s first, long-term permanent collections exhibition, the 2006 show “Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives.” In 2016 she secured a $15 million pledge from Jay and Deborah Last, the biggest of her tenure and more than double the museum’s $6.5 million annual operating budget.

During her inaugural year as director, Berns initiated free admission. In 2006, she changed the museum’s name to the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

“I felt that being called a museum of cultural history was too restrictive,” Berns said. “It signified to people we were an anthropology museum, and I felt we were squarely an art museum.”

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Of the many historical and contemporary art exhibitions Berns oversaw or helped to organize, she’s particularly proud of “Intersections” as well as “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley” in 2011, “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths” in 2018 and “Fowler at Fifty,” a yearlong series of exhibitions that started in late 2013.

Brett Steele, dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, said in a statement that Berns has shown a “profound commitment to justice and equity.”

“Under Marla’s leadership,” Steele said, “the museum didn’t just bring global cultures to our doorstep, it awakened us to a richer diversity of human experience.”

The search for a new director will begin soon, the museum said.

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Berns said she hoped her retirement “opens the door to UCLA making it a priority of seeking a successor from one of the under-represented groups we would like to see more of in the museum world.”


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