Doran Ross, former director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA and a pre-eminent scholar of the arts of Ghana, died Sept. 16 at his home in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 73.
Ross began his career at the Fowler Museum (then the UCLA Museum of Cultural History) 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.
“As a museum leader and specialist on the arts of Africa, Ross was a towering presence, not just for his size and charismatic personality, but for the legacy he has left as a prodigious scholar and curator as well as friend and mentor to so many,” said Marla Berns, Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum.
UC Santa Barbara professor emeritus Herbert Cole, with whom Ross studied and co-curated his first exhibition at UCLA, said Ross 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 Ross’ Akan publication highlights are “The Arts of Ghana” (1977) with Cole; “Akan Gold from the Glassell Collection” (2002); “Royal Arts of the Akan: West African Gold in Museum Liaunig” (2009); and “Art, Honor and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana” (2017) with Silvia Forni.
Ross earned his bachelor’s in art history and psychology from Cal State Fresno, and received his master’s in art history at UC Santa Barbara. He went on to teach at various California institutions until beginning his 20-year tenure at the Fowler Museum. He was largely responsible for setting the standard for the Fowler’s highly researched, contextualized and multimedia exhibitions of global arts, always paired with a scholarly volume, a paradigm that continues to this day.
“Doran 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,” said Betsy Quick, former Fowler Director of Education and Curatorial Affairs.
During his tenure, Ross managed and/or curated nearly 40 African and African American exhibitions that were shown at 30 different venues nationally. Some of the highlights include: “Elephant! The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture” (1992); “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” (1995), which traveled to seven American museums and was co-curated by Donald Cosentino and Marilyn Houlberg; and “Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity” (1999), which traveled to eight American museums as well as to 35 community-based venues in a smaller version funded by NEH on the Road, a partnership of the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Among the many other accomplishments of Ross’ long UCLA tenure were his contributions to getting the new Fowler Museum facility designed and built in 1992 with then-director Christopher Donnan; facilitating the acquisition of thousands of objects into the Fowler’s permanent collections; teaching a three-quarter-long course in museum studies; and serving as an editor of the UCLA journal African Arts from 1988-2015 (also publishing 47 articles, reviews and editorials).
Beyond Ross’s direct responsibilities associated with UCLA and the Fowler, he was committed to helping institutions and individuals in Africa. He made 37 research and development trips to 18 African countries. He was on the board of the West African Museums Programme (1993–2000), an Africa-based organization promoting museums; was a member of the arts and artifacts indemnity advisory panel of the National Endowment of the Arts (1996–1999); and served as co-editor of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture from 2002 to 2012 and of volume 1 (Africa), The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010), both with Joanne Eicher.
Of special note was Ross’s promotion of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association, the primary international organization dedicated to the arts of Africa and the African diaspora.
“Doran’s role is the stuff of legend,” said Silvia Forni, former association president. Ross joined the board in 1984, became president from 1987 through 1989, and stayed involved until his death, receiving the Arnold Rubin Book Award in 2001 for “Wrapped in Pride,” and the ACASA Leadership Award in 2011, in recognition of his lifetime of excellence, innovative contributions and vision.
In recent years, Fowler Museum staff have worked with Ross on two exhibitions of Ghanaian art well represented in its collections: Fante Asafo flags from Southern Ghana 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.
“Ross lived life to his fullest and his generosity of spirit knew no bounds,” Berns said. “He will be greatly missed by so many who loved him.”
Ross is survived by his sister, Diane, and by Betsy Quick, his partner of more than 20 years.
The Doran H. Ross Fund for African Exhibitions has been established at the Fowler Museum in his honor. For information about donations, please contact Kris Lewis, Director of Development, at email@example.com.