Suzanne F. Cohen, donor and advocate for the Baltimore Museum of Art, health and education initiatives, dies

Suzanne F. Cohen, a former board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art who championed its free admissions policy, died of cancer Tuesday at her North Baltimore home. She was 83.

In 2005 she donated $2 million to the museum. Half was earmarked for the free-admission program, the other half for exhibitions of contemporary art.

“Suzanne had a sense of social equity long before it became the chic thing to do,” said Doreen Bolger, former BMA director. “Her insistence at free admission propelled the museum to be more engaged with the community.”

Ms. Cohen was a donor to other institutions, including the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Johns Hopkins University, and aided educational initiatives that opened art programs to the disadvantaged.

“Sue was a special person, a truly one-of-a-kind leader whose passion, compassion, commitment and wisdom made a tremendous impact throughout Baltimore and beyond,” said Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated, the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“Sue Cohen made Baltimore — and our world — distinctly better places,” U.S. Senator Ben Cardin said in an email. “She helped break down barriers so that everyone could access the arts and cultural resources, deepened our understanding of public health challenges, worked to expand opportunities for international education, and built understanding between Arab and Israeli communities.

“Her life made a difference and her passing leaves a void,” Sen. Cardin added. “Personally I lost a trusted and dear friend, and my prayers are with her family and loved ones.”

Born in Baltimore and raised on Caves Road in Owings Mills, she was the daughter of Paul J. Fineman and his wife, Florence, who owned the Cat’s Paw Rubber Co., manufacturers of shoe heels.

She was a 1953 graduate of Forest Park High School and obtained an English degree with honors from Goucher College, where she remained an active alumna.

In 1957 she married Nathan L. Cohen, a vice president and director of Pimlico Race Course. They raised a family and she and her husband formed a charitable fund, the Nathan & Suzanne Cohen Foundation.

“She considered herself a professional volunteer and a philanthropist,” said her daughter, Nancy Cohen of Los Angeles.

“Knowing Sue for the past 30 years, I have always been struck by her elegance, professionalism, empathy and intellect,” said Mr. Terrill. “There are few leaders in this world who make the impact that Sue has, with countless programs and organizations that have benefited from her wisdom and generosity. She will forever be remembered at The Associated for being a mentor, friend and champion of important and just causes.”

She became active at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she was board chair from 2003 to 2006 and later an honorary trustee. She and her husband created a contemporary art fund and collected the works of conceptual artists Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt.

In a joint statement, Christopher Bedford, BMA director, and Clair Zamoiski Segal, the museum’s board chair, called Ms. Cohen’s passing “a tremendous loss not only to the Baltimore Museum of Art but to the cultural and philanthropic communities, and to many of us personally. Sue embodied the core values of this museum’s future, beginning with free admission. … Her impact is indelible and will never be forgotten.”

They also said: “Baltimore has benefited greatly from her generous support for free museum admission, her enthusiasm for contemporary art, and passion for social justice.”

“Sue was passionate about her causes,” said Stiles T. Colwill, a friend who followed her as BMA board chair. “She could be exacting — there were certain ways to do things and that was how they should be done — but she also had a marvelous sense of humor. She could laugh at herself. If she thought something was the right thing to do, she put her money where he mouth was. She was a woman who was somewhat ahead of her time. She really was an early female civic leader.”

Ms. Cohen was a past chair and life trustee at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. She also chaired the Baltimore Jewish Council from 1998 to 2000.

She was a past trustee of the Baltimore Community Foundation, and funded its A-Teams program, an after-school initiative focused on academics, art and athletics for under-served middle school students.

She was also a trustee with the Open Society Institute and Goucher College, and served on the advisory committee of the Weinberg Library Project. She created an internship in brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, and also founded the Nathan L. Cohen Neurology Lectureship.

Goucher College named her its 2015 Distinguished Alumna and granted her its 1998 Award for Excellence in Public Service.

She was named to the Jewish Community Center’s Hall of Fame in 2013. In addition, the Creative Alliance gave her a Golden Formstone Award in 2008, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library named her a Distinguished Benefactor in 2000.

Ms. Cohen was a member of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

Services were held Wednesday at Sol Levinson and Brothers.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include another daughter, Janet Cohen of New York City; a brother, Howard Fineman of Boston; and four granddaughters. Her husband of 31 years died in 1988.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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