BMA names Ky. professor to African art curator post

September 01, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

An expert in African art who has lived on that continent and studied how its leaders have used the arts to promote political and economic agendas has been hired as the Baltimore Museum of Art's curator of African art.

Karen Milbourne, an assistant professor of African art history at the University of Kentucky who has organized exhibitions on the healing powers of African art and on the political aspects of African-art studies, will step into her new post at the BMA Nov. 15.

"We are delighted to add this vibrant young scholar to continue the BMA's great tradition of collecting and presenting African art," said BMA director Doreen Bolger. "Karen Milbourne is an imaginative thinker and great communicator who is sure to stir up a lot of enthusiasm for African art."

Milbourne, 34, replaces former curator Fred Lamp, who resigned in December to become curator of African art at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn. Milbourne said one of her first priorities will be the long-planned reinstallation of the museum's collections of the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

"I hope especially to reach out to the Washington and Baltimore region, where there is a large African community, and bring them into the process," Milbourne said. "One of my primary goals is to show the true diversity of the arts of the African continent."

The cost of the planned reinstallation of the African galleries has not been finalized, Bolger said, but museum officials hope to raise $500,000 of the expense through a bond issue that city voters must approve in the general election Nov. 2.

Previous reinstallations, such as those for the museum's Cone and Jacobs wings, have cost between $1.9 million and $4.2 million, Bolger said, and have included such capital improvements as roof replacements, lighting and structural work. Much of the money for those projects was raised from private sources.

BMA deputy director Jay Fisher said Milbourne stood out from a large field of candidates because she not only had a strong scholarly record but because she had actually done hands-on field work in Africa and had worked in museums.

"It seems as if lot of younger African scholars have not actually done field work, so that more and more they're studying African art solely from museum collections," Fisher said. "Karen has actually done field work and spent time in Africa to work on her topic, as well as having had a good record of museum experience. So that was an important factor."

Milbourne, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania who received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Iowa last year, worked in Africa for two years researching her dissertation on the Lozi arts of Barotseland in western Zambia. During that time, she lived in Zambia and Nigeria and made shorter trips to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania.

Her museum experience includes collections research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and curatorial work at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the Museum for African Art in New York, the Royal Academy in London and the Neufeld and Plass Collections of African Art at Bryn Mawr College.

Milbourne is currently working on a book, Visionary Leadership: Art, Politics and the Survival of the African State, based on her study of the Lozi arts of Barotseland. She is also collaborating in the development of a major exhibition of Lozi arts at the American Museum of Natural History.

She has also served as chair for the arts for the 2003 African Studies Association International Conference in Boston and has been a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Smithsonian Pre-doctoral Fellowship.

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