The Fralin To Welcome Smithsonian Curator as Next Director

November 20, 2023
Karen Milbourne

Karen Elizabeth Milbourne has been named the new director of The Fralin Museum of Art. (Photo by Tristan Williams)

A senior curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art has been selected as the new director of the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art.

After a national search, a committee of faculty and staff affiliated with the arts chose Karen Elizabeth Milbourne, who earned a doctorate in art history from the University of Iowa in 2003 and a bachelor’s degree in African studies from Bryn Mawr College to lead The Fralin. She will bring more than 20 years of museum experience to the post she will assume on Jan. 29. She replaces the previous Fralin director, Matthew McLendon, who served in the role for six years.

“Dr. Milbourne has a dynamic track record of excellence through her work as a curator, researcher and administrator,” Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost for the arts, said. “Recognized for her collaborative approach, she will further encourage a spirit of curiosity within the UVA community and build on her expertise to engage, empower and support The Fralin’s dedicated team as they promote diversity of thought throughout the museum’s collections, exhibitions and public offerings.”

Great Minds Put to Good Use, Learn More
Great Minds Put to Good Use, Learn More

Milbourne will guide The Fralin’s core research and teaching missions, present groundbreaking exhibitions and support an emerging generation of artists, researchers and art professionals. As the museum’s J. Sanford Miller Family Director, Milbourne will oversee a staff of 26 employees, including 15 student workers. 

“UVA is an extraordinary university,” Milbourne said. “It is an honor to join the dedicated team of the Fralin Museum of Art at this moment, as we envision a new Center for the Arts. I am so excited by what we can do together.”

In her 15-year tenure at the National Museum of African Art, Milbourne has overseen the curation of archives, collections and publications and worked extensively with the arts and pageantry of western Zambia and contemporary African art.

She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship and honors from the Arts Council of the African Studies Association, the Association of Art Museum Curators, the Smithsonian Secretary’s Award for Excellence and two Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prizes.

She is the former chair of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program and serves on the scientific committee for Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, and the advisory board for the Lusaka Contemporary Art Center.

Prior to her time at the Smithsonian museum, Milbourne held the roles of associate curator of African art and department head for the arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Previously, she was an assistant professor of art history at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.

“In Karen Milbourne, we have the tremendous good fortune of recruiting a superb scholar and curator of great ambition and distinction, and whose expertise is well matched with The Fralin’s global art collection,” search committee chair Sarah Betzer said.

“The search committee found Karen’s energy and ideas contagious, and we were particularly struck by her keen sensitivity to an ethics of the museum of the future, grounded in the principles of inclusivity and interaction,” said Betzer, who also serves as a professor of art history and is the associate dean of UVA Arts & Humanities. “She is in these ways beautifully poised to amplify The Fralin’s existing strengths, and to build upon and expand partnerships with the University’s faculty, students and staff and with our broader Charlottesville community.” 

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