The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia announces Karen Elizabeth Milbourne as new J. Sanford Miller Family Director

Karen Milbourne • Image by Tristan Williams:
Karen Milbourne • Image by Tristan Williams:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Following a national search, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia has selected Karen Elizabeth Milbourne, Ph.D. to lead the Museum as the new J. Sanford Miller Family director. An innovative leader and curator with more than 20 years of experience in the museum field, Milbourne will assume her new role on Jan. 29, 2024. She succeeds previous director Matthew McLendon, Ph.D., who led the Fralin for six years. She comes to Charlottesville from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, D.C., where she currently serves as senior curator and acting head of knowledge production. 

“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,” said search committee chair Sarah Betzer, professor of art history and associate dean for arts & humanities in the College of Arts & Sciences. “The search committee found Karen’s energy and ideas contagious, and we were particularly struck by her keen sensitivity to museum ethics of the future grounded in the principles of inclusivity and interaction. In these ways, she is beautifully poised to amplify The Fralin’s existing strengths and build upon and expand partnerships with the University’s faculty, students, staff and broader Charlottesville community.” 

Milbourne will guide The Fralin’s efforts to provide intellectually rigorous, robustly inclusive and inspiring encounters with works of art for the community. She will collaborate closely with creative and performing arts units across the University of Virginia (UVA), including the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA, to shape a strategic vision for expanding arts programs, promoting interdisciplinary initiatives and building a new Museum. Serving UVA’s core research and teaching missions, Milbourne will steer The Fralin’s efforts to highlight inquiry, present groundbreaking exhibitions and arts scholarship and support the formation of a new generation of artists, researchers and arts professionals.

“Dr. Karen Elizabeth Milbourne has a dynamic track record of excellence through her work as a curator, researcher and administrator,” said Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost for the arts. “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.”

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

She curated numerous exhibitions, including “A Brave New World” (2010), “Market Symphony by Emeka Ogboh” (2016), “Jim Chuchu’s Invocations” (2017) and the series “Artists in Dialogue” (2009, 2011). Her 2013 exhibition, “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” received the Award for Curatorial Excellence from the Arts Council of the African Studies Association and its publication the Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prize. In 2021, her exhibition and accompanying publication “I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” (2019) also received the Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prize. Her exhibitions, “From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson,” “John Akomfrah: Five Murmurations” and “Georges Adéagbo: Create to Free Yourselves—Abraham Lincoln and the Freeing of Slaves in America” are currently on view at the National Museum of African Art.

"The success of the National Museum of African Art today is built from the substantial contributions Karen Milbourne has made over her decade and a half career at the Smithsonian," said John K. Lapiana, interim director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. "Everything that the Museum does — from exhibitions to collection building to scholarship — reflects her passion and creativity. We look forward to working with Karen in her new role and The Fralin to advance the missions of both museums." 

Prior to her time at NMAfA, 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.

“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.”

Milbourne 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. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, ACASA Award for Curatorial Excellence, AAMC Award for Curatorial Excellence, Smithsonian Secretary’s Award for Excellence and two Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prizes. Her writing has been published in edited volumes and journals including African Arts, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Art Papers, ARS and CollectionsShe is the former chair of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program and currently serves on the scientific committee for Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions (AWARE) and the advisory board for the Lusaka Contemporary Art Center.

The first exhibitions to open during Milbourne’s tenure at The Fralin will be “Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala and “Voices of Connection: Garamut Slit Drums of New Guinea.” “Maḏayin” — the most significant exhibition of bark paintings to tour the United States — is exceptional because it is an exhibition that originated with the Yolŋu artists who shaped the curatorial rationale, developed the exhibition checklist and wrote the exhibition didactics and catalog essays. “Voices of Connection” is a collaboration between Papua New Guinean scholars, UVA faculty and students and museum staff that highlights the instruments the people of Papua New Guinea and its neighboring islands consider their voice. These exhibitions will open on Feb. 3, 2024.

About The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
Established in 1935, the University of Virginia Art Museum became The Fralin Museum of Art in 2012 in honor of a bequest of American art and service to the University by Cynthia and W. Heywood Fralin. The Museum maintains a collection of more than 13,000 works of art, including American and European painting, works on paper and sculpture from the 15th through the 20th centuries; art from the ancient Mediterranean; Asian art; and Native and ancient American art. Housed in the historic Bayly Building near the Rotunda on the landmark UVA campus, The Fralin is dedicated to serving the widest possible audiences and engaging comprehensive visual education to enhance its visitors’ understanding of world cultures. Throughout the year, the Museum presents a diverse selection of exhibitions, programs, research and events that bring the University and broader community together.

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Media Contact: 
Brad Tuggle
Blue Water Communications 

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