A ‘magical’ homecoming—Ackland Director Katie Ziglar ’79 on life in Chapel Hill

News & Spotlights | March 12, 2019

Ackland Art Museum Director Katie Ziglar ’79 established her art and museum career in international cities, including New York, Cairo, and Washington, DC. She never thought she would return to Chapel Hill—the place where, in many ways, her journey started.

“It’s not something I aimed for,” Katie says. “It was just one of those magical things that happened.”

Katie returned to the University to serve as executive director of the Ackland in 2016. When she arrived, she went right to work setting big goals. Among them: securing funding to replace the Ackland’s six-decade-old building.

“Being back is a chance to work on a knotty, long-term problem,” Katie says. “It’s an opportunity to be a leader. It will be the greatest challenge of my professional life.”

And to think: Katie nearly led a life outside the art world. There was a time she considered a career in law. But a class in Islamic art grabbed her attention during senior year and never let go.

Katie says she decided to forgo more conventional paths. She believed she could make “unconventional” work. She knew she could.

“The scholarship gave me so many incredible opportunities,” Katie says. “Big and challenging things that I wouldn’t have done on my own.”

She stops and reflects.

“Those experiences showed me I could do more than I thought. They gave me the confidence to be more fearless and experimental.”

Katie’s willingness to explore the unknown took her all over the world. She holds a master’s degree from the American University in Cairo. She spent years managing the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries’ external affairs and helped raise millions for the nation’s best-known museums.

Now Katie’s willingness to experiment has brought her home.

“It’s been a time-warp,” she laughs. “But the fact the Foundation is still here and a vital force on campus gave me confidence this was the right place to come.”

Katie says her relationship with Morehead-Cain is as meaningful now as it was when she was a scholar. She serves on the Morehead-Cain Scholarship Fund Board, hosts scholar interns when she can, and supports the Program in many other ways.

“I have been so inspired and helped in my own life by Morehead-Cain,” she says. “The scholarship set the keel of my boat in a different direction than it would have been otherwise.”

Katie recognizes that current scholars experience similar feelings.

“I remember the exhilaration and excitement at all the opportunities that were there for me to grab onto,” she says. “The caliber of students here is remarkable.”

And if this is where her professional journey ends? Katie is okay with that.

“I knew I wanted to be somewhere great where I could make an impact,” she says. “I just never dreamed I would find what I was looking for—and more—right here at Carolina.”