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Backing Brilliance


Photos by Coral von Zumwalt

Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM


Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt


Ask Shirley and Ralph Shapiro — generous benefactors to all kinds of initiatives at UCLA and elsewhere — why they make ongoing gifts to UCLA’s Fowler Museum, and it pretty much comes down to this: Their respect for Fowler director Marla C. Berns ’73, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’86.

Berns came to the Fowler in 2001 after a decade as director of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara. Since then, she has brought the small but mighty museum to new heights and fostered international relationships that have deepened the museum’s prestige and influence around the world.

“Marla and what she is doing is what attracted us to the Fowler,” says Ralph Shapiro ’53, J.D. ’58.

A decade or so ago, the Shapiros established an ongoing discretionary fund for Berns to use as needed — for example, to secure a traveling exhibition or to buy a work of art. In 2007, they added a $1-million gift to establish an endowed fund that made Berns the first Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum.

And they didn’t stop there. From time to time, Berns gets the news that the Shapiros have added another gift, which she can use as needed — for example, to cover the hiring of part-time staff for installations or for marketing and outreach costs for certain exhibitions. Among other things, Berns used funds from the Shapiros for collections research in Europe for the museum’s highly praised 2011 exhibition Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, which was produced in association with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

“These resources have offered me a high level of programmatic flexibility and also provide a way to support professional development for Fowler staff,” Berns says. “They’ve allowed the Fowler to broaden its purview and develop a profile internationally.”

The Shapiros — who also support UCLA’s School of Law, School of Dentistry, medical enterprise and environmental initiatives, among other things — say their interest in the museum stems from their desire to encourage appreciation for the world’s cultures.

“The Fowler explains the cultures of countries through the exploration of customs and arts, so we end up coming to a different and deeper understanding of others and ourselves,” says Shirley Shapiro ’59, who has had a strong interest in this topic since she was a girl.


Marla Berns cradles a pre-1970s ceramic vessel that was believed by the Cham-Mwana people to cure sick children by trapping their diseases inside. The vessel is from Nigeria, where Berns did her Ph.D. fieldwork.

For Berns, the Shapiros’ support has been crucial for the museum, which currently is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of exhibitions and special programs.

“You can only imagine how it inspires me to keep moving forward and draw on the energy they send my way to invest in the work we do at the museum,” Berns says. “They’re also completely supportive of the new directions we’re going in with our programming, including a greater emphasis on contemporary artists.”

Berns calls the Shapiros’ giving “inspirational, transformational philanthropy. They care about me and about the Fowler,” she says. “They’re invested in our success.”

— Claudia Luther


A small box sits on a bookshelf in David Cohen’s office, emblazoned with the metaphor to which the professor and Marjorie Crump Chair in Social Welfare has subscribed throughout his career: Think outside the box.

The Crump chair, which the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor has held since 2013, encourages the type of convention-challenging thought that Cohen insists his discipline needs. “Many of us in academia spend a lot of time going after grants,” Cohen explains. “This endowment gives me the freedom not to have to do that. It gives me the leeway to pursue an idea without having to fit into anyone’s conception of what is fundable. It’s fantastic.”

Since the 1970s, when he was first practicing as a clinical social worker, Cohen has examined the personal and social consequences of the widespread use of prescribed psychoactive medications. “At least one-fifth of the U.S. population is on these drugs, given by their doctors for supposed mental disorders,” he says. “Everyone has looked at the benefits, but these substances also change how people think and how others see them. I try to re-envision a mental-health intervention without reducing people to bundles of neurons, and without confusing the science of healing a psychosocially hurt person with the marketing of drugs.”

After being appointed to the chair — previously held by Stuart A. Kirk, with whom he co-authored the 2013 book Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs — Cohen began communicating with Ralph Crump ’50, who established the chair with his wife, Marjorie ’46. “We have had wonderful phone conversations,” Cohen says. “He got a copy of my book, and within a few minutes of talking he understood exactly what I’m about — and gave me concrete suggestions that I’m working on now. He was an amazingly successful businessman and is so smart. It’s invigorating to speak with him.”

Marjorie Crump, for whom the chair is named, died this past March. She graduated from UCLA’s social work program in 1946 and became a licensed social worker for Los Angeles County, while Ralph Crump — her high school sweetheart — returned to campus for an engineering degree after serving in World War II. The couple went on to remarkable success in biomedical and other high-tech industries, being awarded a dozen patents while starting and growing a number of businesses, more than one of which ended up listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Crumps’ problem-solving, entrepreneurial spirit appeals to Cohen, who is capitalizing on his position to organize an international conference of critical-thought leaders with the intent of rethinking the future of mental-health care. He hopes to engage UCLA students in the effort, whether in the classroom, on individual projects, in organizing the meeting and through an essay contest. “These are immensely talented and thoughtful people who want to give back to society,” he says. “My goal is to encourage them to become independent, bold, entrepreneurial and forward-thinking. This chair makes that easier to do.”

— D.G.



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