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Beautiful Connections
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As a UCLA graduate student in art history, Berns made this fundamental connection herself one day while sitting in a class on Oceanic art history taught by the late Arnold Rubin. In the darkness of Dickson Auditorium, immense images of masked figures from a Papua New Guinea festival flashed on the projection screen. "It was like an epiphany for me," she recalls. "The prospect of actually studying who made this art, of discovering why this art exists and how it fits into a cultural framework — I realized that this was so much more exciting to me than just memorizing the titles and dates of artworks and the names of those who made them."

Berns, the daughter of a Los Angeles-area artist, immediately switched the focus of her graduate studies and began her own journey into the heart of northeastern Nigeria, where she lived for more than two-and-a-half years among 25 different ethnic groups to identify the linkages between their art — their pottery, their decorated gourds, their homes, even their body art or scarification — and their histories.

Today, some 22 years later — a time period during which she worked stints running a small departmental gallery at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and as director of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara — Berns has come full circle. On the campus where she interned as a student curator, she now leads the Fowler, with hopes of strengthening its ties to the campus and the Los Angeles community.

Her experiences in St. Paul and Santa Barbara laid a strong foundation for Berns to meet the challenges she would find at the helm of UCLA's Fowler Museum. The St. Paul gallery was a showcase for the department's extensive collection of historical fashions, textiles and decorative arts. There she capitalized on the gallery's uniqueness and the mission of university museums to intellectually stimulate visitors, often with unusual subject matter (she once mounted a show focusing on the evolution of women's underwear), a task that larger, metropolitan museums sometimes shy away from as too high-risk or off-beat.

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