For four decades, Suzanne F. Cohen (1935–2018)—known to her friends as “Sue”—thoroughly dedicated herself to nearly every aspect of The Baltimore Museum of Art. Sue’s extraordinary leadership encompassed 32 years of service on the Board of Trustees, plus an additional seven years as an Honorary Trustee. During her tenure as Board Chair (2003–2006), she championed and fully funded free Museum admission, forever transforming the BMA and Baltimore.
Sue believed that museums can matter by making art accessible to all. She established the Cohen Family Fund for Free Admission with a $1 million endowment gift “to enable all segments of the community the opportunity to participate in and enjoy the treasures of The Baltimore Museum of Art and to encourage new audiences to partake in the activities of the Museum, particularly school children, disabled populations, and others at risk of isolation.”
Contemporary art was one of Sue’s great passions and this area of the BMA most visibly continues her legacy. The Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Fund was created in 1987 to support new acquisitions. The Suzanne F. Cohen Exhibition Fund followed in 2005, a substantial gift in support of contemporary art exhibitions at the museum. Sue’s many gifts of art to the collection over decades culminated with her extraordinary bequest of 40 works of art.
Permit me to share my grander dream of what I believe our BMA can and will be. As the world around us is in constant turmoil, we have the opportunity and responsibility to provide an enriching safe haven for all who enter our doors.
Sue Cohen, Speech to the Board of Trustees, June 2003
Supporting Ambitious Exhibitions
Sue was a leading sponsor for many of the BMA’s most ambitious contemporary art exhibitions. Installation views highlight a selection. Clockwise, from top left: Franz West, To Build a House You Start With the Roof: Work, 1972−2008, 2008; Front Room: Guerrilla Girls, 2016; Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963−2017, 2018; John Waters: Indecent Exposure, 2018. Photos: Mitro Hood.
We commit ourselves to stimulate our guests to observe the world through the lens of art; to cross geographic and ethnic boundaries by looking at humanity without bias; to draw our viewers into engaging meaningfully in building a just and humane civil society.
Championing Extraordinary Artists
Contemporary art was one of Sue’s greatest passions. She championed artists she admired by collecting their work in depth, lending to exhibitions, and giving work to the BMA to steward for future generations. Ellsworth Kelly was one such artist. Sue donated five works by Kelly to the BMA, including his extraordinary multi-panel painting Green Red Yellow Blue, 1966 (BMA 2019.84), now on view in On Certainty: Gifts from the Collection of Suzanne F. Cohen. Left and right: Installation views of a 2007−2008 Kelly exhibition at the BMA. Photo: Mitro Hood. Center: Portrait of Sue at that show alongside Kelly’s Two Blacks and White. Photo: Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun File.
Serving as Patron
Sue was an important patron for Mel Bochner, one of America’s leading conceptual artists. Her many gifts to the BMA established the Museum as a vital repository of Bochner’s work. The admiration was mutual and evolved into an abiding friendship. Bochner has created a new work for the BMA collection, Random Lines (Transposed), 1968/2021, which he dedicates in Sue’s memory: Gift of the Artist in Honor of Sue Cohen, Dear Friend and Fearless Collector. Left to right: Sue alongside Bochner’s Both/Or/And/If (Either) (BMA 2019.82); installation view of Random Lines (Transposed) now on view in On Certainty: Gifts from the Collection of Suzanne F. Cohen. Photo: Mitro Hood.
Beyond physically opening our doors, I hope each of us will make a personal effort to consciously open our minds and hearts, to embrace differences, and promote the creation of a just and humane civil society through the medium of art … I challenge myself and the whole BMA family … I promise to harness my passion for art and the BMA to lead the charge.
Speech to the Board of Trustees, June 2004
Buzz About the BMA
Sue encouraged fellow trustees to “buzz about the BMA,” and she embraced every opportunity to celebrate and share her love for the Museum. Clockwise, from top left: The Baltimore Museum of Art Pope Building on the 100th Anniversary, 2014; Sue with Tom Hall of WYPR and Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen at the opening of Matisse/Diebenkorn, 2016; James Thornton, Sue, Freddie Saxon, and Thomas King at the re-opening of the African Galleries, 2014; Current Board Chair Clair Zamoiski Segal, Alexander Baer, and Sue at the Curators Council Dinner, 2016. Photos: Maximilian Franz.
Commissioning Transformative Art
In 2012, Sue and the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art supported the transformative commission of two architectural interventions by the artist Sarah Oppenheimer that explore perception and space at the threshold of the BMA’s Contemporary Wing. Left to right: Sue with the artist Sarah Oppenheimer, 2012. Photo: Glenwood R. Jackson; Installation views of Sarah Oppenheimer’s W-120301, 2012. Photos: Ron Solomon.
A dedicated collector, Sue was led by her keen perception, steadfast care for artists, and conviction about works of art she wanted to spend time with, regardless of art world trends. In 2013, curators Kristen Hileman and Jay Fisher organized a BMA exhibition of drawings from Sue’s collection, many of which have now entered the Museum’s collection through her bequest. Left to right: Sue surrounded by visitors to On Paper: Drawings from the Cohen Collection; Sue, Margot “Peggy” Heller, and Dody Brager at the opening of the 2013 exhibition. Photos: Maximilian Franz.
Conserving the Collection
Sue recognized the responsibility of stewarding works in the BMA collection for future generations. In 2014, she banded together with contributors to the Illuminate campaign to support the conservation of Bruce Nauman’s neon installation on the façade of the BMA. To deepen the context for Nauman’s work in the BMA collection, Sue also made a promised gift—now completed through her bequest—of Nauman’s pastel fabrication drawing for the related neon, Violins Violence Silence (Interior Version). Left to right: Violins Violence Silence (Fabrication Drawing, Interior Version). 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Suzanne F. Cohen, Chair of the BMA Board of Trustees, 2003-2006, BMA 2019.73 © Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981-1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2 © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Bruce Nauman.
Living with Art
Sue filled her home with art and relished sharing it with family, friends, and guests. In 2016 she hosted the BMA’s Curator’s Council reception, offering a tour of her collection. Left to right: Sue and Margot “Peggy” Heller with Mel Bochner’s Contempt, 2004 (BMA 2019.83) a painting Sue situated prominently in her entry hall, welcoming its invitation to spirited debate; Sue and guests discussing Marjetica Potrč, Wanting Water, 2003 (BMA 2019.75); Sue talking with a guest in her living room with Mel Bochner’s 48” Standards (#1), 1969 (BMA 2019.102) and Ellsworth Kelly’s Green Red Yellow Blue, 1966 (BMA 2019.84) nearby. Photos: Maximilian Franz.
Support in Venice
At the 57th Venice Biennale, the BMA and the Rose Art Museum hosted a fundraising dinner in honor of Mark Bradford. Sue was among the many BMA Trustees and friends who journeyed to Venice to take part in the celebration. The BMA’s proceeds from the dinner supported the Museum’s exhibition program, including bringing Mark Bradford’s Venice project to Baltimore in the fall of 2018. Left to right: Installation view, Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day. Venice Biennale 2017, US Pavilion. Photo: Joshua White. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Sue at the Commissioner’s Dinner in honor of Mark Bradford, 2017. Photo: Francesca Bottazin.
Launching a Conversation Series
In 2017 the BMA launched a series of conversations on art, race, and social justice “imagining the future(s) we want.” Sue generously sponsored these programs, which brought together Baltimore audiences with extraordinary minds: Mark Bradford (2017); Ta-Nehisi Coates (2018); Hank Willis Thomas (2018); Boots Riley and Mickalene Thomas (2019); Pamela J. Joyner, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Zoë Charlton (2019); and, during the COVID 19 shutdown, in a virtual format with Tarana Burke, Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Jenna Worthham (2020). Clockwise, from top left: Sue with Mark Bradford at the inaugural event; Sue with BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director Christopher Bedford. Photos by Glenwood Jackson; Select images of speakers. Photos by Kristi Odom, Maximilian Franz.
For me, Free Admission is the capstone of my Museum career. It synthesizes my passion for art and the meaningful place it can have in our lives with my personal commitment to social justice – the imperative that we share our wondrous Museum with all of our public all of the time … No wonder I am flying high! ... I offer each of you and all connected with the BMA my love and thanks for a momentous ride.
Speech to the Board of Trustees, June 2006