In Memoriam: Doran H. Ross (1947–2020)
by Marla Berns and Betsy Quick
We remember Doran H. Ross, who passed away on September 16th after a long illness. Doran was a towering presence in our field of African art studies, not just for his size and charismatic personality but for the legacy he has left us as a prodigious scholar, curator, and leader as well as friend and mentor to so many. It was at California State University, Fresno, working on a double major in art history and psychology, that he was first introduced to African art and where that journey really began. He received his M.A. in art history at UCSB and went on to teach at various California institutions until his distinguished career at the Fowler Museum began in 1981 as Associate Director and Curator of Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceanic arts; he later became Deputy Director and Curator of African Collections, before becoming the first non-faculty full-time Director in 1996, a position he held until he retired in 2001. His first major exhibition at the Fowler (then the UCLA Museum of Cultural History) was The Arts of Ghana (1977), which he co-curated with Herbert M. Cole, and was accompanied by a comprehensive publication he co-authored. Doran was among the most important scholars of Ghanaian arts in the world—many would argue the foremost—with research interests that centered on the royal and military arts of the Akan peoples, especially their dress, adornment, and regalia. Among his Akan publication highlights are Akan Gold from the Glassell Collection (2002); Royal Arts of the Akan: West African Gold in Museum Liaunig (2009); Art, Honor and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana (2017) with Silvia Forni; and Akan Transformations: Problems in Ghanaian Art History (1983), which he edited. Doran would fight anyone who claimed that any other African culture compared with that of Akan-speakers of Ghana.
Doran was largely responsible for setting the standard for the Fowler’s highly researched, contextualized, and multi-media exhibitions of global arts, always paired with a scholarly volume, a paradigm that continues to this day. He was firmly committed to a team approach for exhibition development, believing that exhibitions benefitted from diverse perspectives beyond those of the erudite scholar—a methodology then considered novel, but one he saw as essential. Among the many highlights of his tenure were his contributions to getting the new Fowler Museum facility designed and built in 1992. He signaled the new institution’s ambition and vision with four simultaneous inaugural exhibitions (each with its book), including Elephant! The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture, which he curated.
Drawing on his huge reservoir of energy, Doran oversaw many other projects: he managed and/or curated some 38 African and African-American exhibitions that were shown at 30 different venues nationally. For example, his tenacity in spearheading the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou project (1995), co-curated by Donald J. Cosentino and Marilyn Houlberg, resulted in one of the Fowler’s most memorable exhibitions and publications. Doran curated the important community-based project, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity (1991), an initiative that involved a year-long African art and field collecting course he co-taught with the Fowler’s Director of Education Betsy Quick at Crenshaw High School. A smaller version of this exhibition, initiated and funded by NEH on the Road and co-organized with Quick, traveled to 35 community venues around the country. Over his long term at the Museum, Doran oversaw the acquisition of thousands of objects into its permanent collections. His years at the Fowler were also a time when the Museum’s national reputation as an innovator in the development of exhibitions, the engagement of community advisors, and the production of multi-author publications was established with authority. Many Fowler projects were funded by the NEH and it was Doran who set the stage for the Museum’s long and successful record of receiving major grants from this key federal agency. During his years at UCLA he also taught a three-quarter Museum Studies course, inspiring students to seek museum careers while also mentoring graduate students at UCLA and elsewhere who benefitted from his wisdom, experience, and generosity. Because he felt such gratitude to his mentor and friend Skip Cole for inviting him as a graduate student to contribute to The Arts of Ghana, he went out of his way throughout his career to assist and advise students, and to create opportunities for them to publish their research. Doran served as an editor of the UCLA journal African Arts from 1988–2015, and published in it 47 articles, reviews, First Words, In Memoria, and Portfolios from 1974–2014.
Were that not enough, Doran also guest curated numerous exhibitions both nationally and internationally, working with large and small institutions; and consulted on collections building, film projects, self-study institutional initiatives, federal grant reviews, and museum studies programs. Over a span of several years, he also worked closely with two important collections of Akan gold at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Museum Liaunig in Austria.
As a great proponent of research and exhibitions on global textiles, he also was co-editor of Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture from 2002 to 2012 and editor of volume 1 (Africa), The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010), both with Joanne B. Eicher. Doran was especially proud of the National Museum of Mali/UCLA Museum of Cultural History Joint Textile Collection and Documentation Project (1986–1992); while building collections for both institutions, he mandated that when questions of quality arose, the better example would be reserved for the National Museum of Mali. Always, Africa first.
Beyond Doran’s direct responsibilities associated with UCLA and Fowler projects, he was extremely committed to helping institutions and individuals in Africa. From 1974 to his last trip in 2014, he made 37 research and development trips to 18 African countries. Following the joint collection project with the National Museum of Mali, he served on the Board of the West African Museums Project (1993–2000), a policy and programmatic initiative to which he was deeply committed. As well, he served on the Selection Committee of the SSRC African Archives and Museums Project (1991–1996), was a member of the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Advisory Panel of the NEA (1996–1999) and of the Advisory Committee of the Getty Leadership Institute (2000–2003).
Somehow, between writing and curating, building collections and consulting, he found time to be a lifelong student of film (his library numbered some 3000 DVDs) and music, most especially western Classical music, American jazz, and tradition-based and contemporary African music. Name a composer, a particular arrangement, or an obscure artist and undoubtedly one would find it in his library of 5000 meticulously catalogued CDs.
Doran’s participation in and promotion of ACASA is the stuff of legend. He joined the Board in 1984 and served as Secretary/Treasurer (1984–87), was Program Chair for the 7th Triennial in 1986, became President in 1987–1989, received the Arnold Rubin Book award in 2001 for Wrapped in Pride, served on the Rubin Book Award and Leadership Award Committees, and received the ACASA Leadership Award in 2011. His support of ACASA never waned and he attended every Triennial Symposium from Washington, D.C. in 1977 to Brooklyn in 2014.
In recent years, Fowler staff have been working with Doran on two exhibitions of Ghanaian art well represented in its collections: Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana (an exhibition that opened at the ROM in 2017 and was co-curated with Silvia Forni) and the paintings of Kwame Akoto (a.k.a. Almighty God). They will be presented to honor Doran and his remarkable legacy of service to the Fowler and UCLA.
Doran Ross lived life to his fullest and his generosity of spirit knew no bounds. Just as his career was one of intense engagement and productivity, so too did he lavish his warm, teasing affection and robust sense of humor on his many friends near and far. His wordsmithing delights found joy in puns of all varieties, and the occasional pause in conversation signaled an always-hilarious play on words. He will be greatly missed by so many who loved him. He is survived by his sister Diane and by Betsy Quick, his partner of some 20 years.
The Doran H. Ross Fund for African Exhibitions has been established at the Fowler Museum to honor Doran. For information about donations, please contact Kris Lewis, Director of Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org