Marla C. Berns has been named the director of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. She succeeds Doran H. Ross, who retired as director on July 1. The appointment, effective in November, was announced by Daniel Neuman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture.
“Marla Berns has been a very positive force in the museum world for the past 25 years,” Neuman said. “Her experience and vision make her well-suited to lead this internationally recognized institution and to continue to enhance its relationship with the university’s academic programs as well as the varied cultural communities of Los Angeles.”
This appointment realizes Berns’ return to the museum, where she began her career in the arts as an African arts graduate intern in 1978. In 1986 she served as curator of the nationally travelling exhibition, “The Essential Gourd: African Art From the Obvious to the Ingenious,” organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum. Throughout her career, she has been the curator of exhibitions on topics as wide-ranging as women’s inventions, 1930s fashion, the history of underwear, Japanese prints, 20th-century design and her specialty, African art.
Berns’ long-standing relationship with the Fowler Museum has led to collaborative efforts such as “Japanese Fishermen’s Coats From Awaji Island,” an exhibition co-organized by the Fowler and the University Art Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that is currently traveling internationally. “Just Another Poster? Chicano Graphic Arts in California,” currently on view at the Fowler, was organized by the University Art Museum (UAM) under her direction.
“We are delighted that Marla Berns is returning to the UCLA family as director of the Fowler Museum,” said Chancellor Albert Carnesale. “Her experience, talent and leadership will help to further the excellence of the Fowler’s wide-ranging collections and programs. She will play a key role in enhancing UCLA’s arts initiatives on our campus and beyond.”
For the past 10 years Berns has served as director of the UAM and adjunct associate professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before her tenure at Santa Barbara in 1991, she was director of The Goldstein, a museum of design at the University of Minnesota.
She received her Ph.D. in art history at UCLA in 1986, specializing in African art. Her research and writing have concentrated on women’s arts in Northeastern Nigeria — which include ceramics, decorated gourds and programs of body scarification — and on the historical and ritual importance of figurative ceramic vessels.
Among her accomplishments at UAM was the completion last May of a $2.3 million renovation of the museum’s exhibition facility, creating a new entrance and adjoining 20,000-square-foot plaza and six new state-of-the-art galleries.
At UAM Berns oversaw an exhibition program distinguished by its global diversity — with geographical focuses on Asia and Africa — and its emphasis on contemporary art practices. There, Berns was also the curator of two nationally touring exhibitions, “Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renee Stout” and “Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo.” She has recently finished a retrospective exhibition and monograph on Santa Barbara designer Paul Tuttle, who is internationally known for his furniture and architectural designs.
“I am committed to university museums because they can and should remain laboratories for testing new ideas and pushing boundaries in program content, presentation and interpretation,” Berns said. “The Fowler’s remarkable collections and its strong history of ambitious exhibitions, publications and educational activities based on groundbreaking scholarship make me proud to join its talented staff and lead the museum into the 21st century.”
Berns began her leadership of the Museum by appointing Mary Nooter “Polly” Roberts as deputy director, in addition to her current role as the Fowler Museum’s chief curator.