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New Fralin director Karen Elizabeth Milbourne aims to increase exhibit diversity, expand museum audience

Milbourne outlines a vision for inclusivity and global engagement at The Fralin Museum of Art

Milbourne said she plans to include diverse perspectives in Fralin exhibitions instead of perpetuating recurring issues in art spaces.
Milbourne said she plans to include diverse perspectives in Fralin exhibitions instead of perpetuating recurring issues in art spaces.

The University's Fralin Museum of Art will welcome Karen Elizabeth Milbourne as its new director, with her official role commencing on Jan. 29. Milbourne brings over two decades of experience, and she currently serves as the senior curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Milbourne's time at the National Museum of African Art spans 15 years, where she oversees curatorial operations, publications and conducts work with the arts and pageantry of western Zambia and contemporary African art. Stepping into the position in Charlottesville after six years of leadership by the Fralin’s former director, Matthew McLendon, Milbourne said she has an interest in curating spaces that involve exhibits from all around the world. 

“[Global art] is an area that I'm still interested in showcasing at the Fralin…it becomes a really meaningful bridge to historic collections, as well to think about how we want to bring out the collections that we have and frame them based on the way that creatives are thinking today,” Milbourne said. 

The Fralin announced that half of its exhibitions would center around historically underrepresented artists in 2019 as a part of a longer commitment to inclusivity. Milbourne said she plans to continue building on this plan in future Fralin exhibitions. 

“I would like to extend it further … [and] think more broadly [about] how we continue to build the collection and engage with communities moving forward so that the museum becomes a space that is truly welcoming and inclusive of all,” Milbourne said. 

University students, including the museum’s student docents, are also anticipating Milbourne’s arrival. Bailey Greggs, vice-chair of the Fralin’s docent program and fourth-year College student, said that while student docents are not in frequent contact with the director, she hopes to see the museum and its staff continue presenting diverse exhibits to the local community under Milbourne. The Fralin Student Docent Program is a volunteer organization at the University which allows undergraduates to lead museum tours for visiting school children.

“The inclusion of a diverse background of artists has been something that I've seen at The Fralin … [that] I hope we continue under Karen. For the docent program, same as well, I hope that we continue to grow and be a bigger presence on U.Va.’s campus and the Charlottesville community,” Greggs said.

Milbourne's interest in curating inclusive spaces also extends to Charlottesville at large. She said she wants to strengthen community-based visitorship in an inclusive manner, and that she plans on reaching out to communities on Grounds who may have not felt as welcome at the Fralin. 

“There are different ways of thinking about how we approach our collections and exhibitions to create the museum as a space for everyone,” Milbourne said. “We could reach out to the Law School and think about how art history and anthropology students could partner with Law students, to look at cultural patrimony laws, or maybe even philosophy students [to] think about the ethics of collection stewardship.” 

The Fralin’s goal for 2025 is fostering the spirit of curiosity through art that promotes diversity. This focus has involved embracing art from marginalized groups, where pieces challenge mainstream stereotypes and harmful representations. Most recently, the Fralin has increased indigenous art in exhibitions to capture a presence that has been historically threatened. 

Her arrival will coincide with the opening of the spring exhibition "Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala." The exhibition, which will be displayed starting Feb. 3 and is an addition to the University’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, featuring more than 50 pieces of Aboriginal art. 

Originating from the Yolŋu Aboriginal Australian artists and knowledge-holders, it is a continuation of The Fralin's commitment to diverse perspectives and marks the third venue of a four-venue national tour.

Jordan Love, interim co-director and the first academic curator at The Fralin, said that this event has been an ongoing project that contributes to the museum’s 2019 goal, marking the first time that the majority of the Fralin’s galleries will be devoted to indigenous art. This achievement, paired with Milbourne’s arrival, marks a dynamic stage for The Fralin.

“[Milbourne] is coming on at an exciting time for The Fralin,” Love said. “We have all been working on these shows for a long time, and they're finally coming to fruition. Now we have a new director who is going to step into this leadership role and help us celebrate this.” 

Milbourne said she was excited to step into the role and cultivate exhibitions that are collaborative and inclusive.

“I'm very excited by the prospect of coming,” Milbourne said. “The opportunity to come and work with such extraordinary individuals across the board is a rare opportunity, and I'm really looking forward to becoming part of the community.” 


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