In Memoriam: Remembering Morton Sosland

I had the great pleasure of knowing Morton Sosland, publisher and editor, prominent civic leader, fundraiser and philanthropist, who died April 25 at the age of 93. Among his many endeavors, Morton was the major patron of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s American Indian Department for the past more than twenty years.

Through the years, Morton and I communicated frequently, and his characteristic closing “Let me know how I can help,” assumed tangible reality over and again. Beginning in 2004, he led fundraising for the new suite of Native American galleries. In 2009, the Soslands gave the museum their collection of Northwest Coast art, and in this, they enabled the presentation of Native art from all regions of North America when the new galleries opened in the same year. In 2015, they initiated the forthcoming publication of the inaugural American Indian collection catalogue. Throughout, Morton and I strategized, sometimes daily, on the development of the collection and the work of the department. I relied on his vision and judgment — so much of it directed by his passion for the art.

On May 1, family and friends gathered in the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall to remember Morton. In March of 2014, he planned his memorial service and requested there be no eulogies. Instead, he prepared an ethical will. Rabbi Alan Londy officiated at the service, and he read the document to the assembled group. Excerpts follow.

Morton began his statement by addressing philanthropy, a core value in his life. The Sosland Foundation opened its doors in 1954, and he served as president for many years. Community organizations including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Jewish Federation, Kansas City Symphony, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Congregation Beth Shalom, UMKC, Kansas City Art Institute and Harvesters have been beneficiaries of the foundation’s largesse.

Charity is the name I give to my religion. Yes, I have been a committed Jew, a believer in our faith and its precepts, and proud of what I believe and what Judaism stands for. Charity has been a part of my life, an important part, since childhood when we learned how important it is to share whatever we may have with those in need. We resist one-on-one giving in favor of working through community-based organizations. It is a way of giving that I truly hope continues, offering help for those we want to assist and personal satisfaction for the generous donor.

He wrote about his enjoyment in fundraising, realized perhaps most fully when he and his friend Adelle Hall co-chaired the major campaign for the museum’s new Bloch building, opening in 2007:

I do not recall where I first gained real pleasure in pursuit of giving by others. I have had few moments of personal pride that surpass being told that when I walked down the street others coming toward me were observed crossing the street to avoid contact with me as a most persuasive fund-raiser. I have always felt that I was doing prospects a favor as they realize their own satisfaction about a positive response to my request in making a good investment. There is way too much hesitancy about asking and I urge everyone to step forward in supporting worthy causes by asking others for help.

He recounted the joy of his lifelong partnership with Estelle. At his death, they had been married nearly 73 years:

St. Joseph hospital then over on Prospect is where I was born in 1925. Estelle, born in Christian Church hospital, followed me by nine days, making me the older spouse. Yes, we had different mothers, and fathers, but the same O.B. signed our birth certificates. I should have known our closeness from that beginning of our lives together, now totaling 67 years for each of us.

And, he brought forward a clarion call:

I am a proud alumnus of Bryant elementary school and Southwest High School. Much has been written about the superior education (I passed Harvard’s language requirements in Latin I had studied at Southwest) my generation received at these public schools. Among my two or three greatest hopes for our community is that we find the way to serve today’s students, differently, but equally well. Our failure — and please note that our — in identifying what needs doing to improve Kansas City’s public schools bites at my very soul. We must find answers.

Spring flowers graced the walkway and stage. Rabbi Londy began with a prayer. He read Morton’s ethical will and invited all to join him in the reading of Psalm 23. String members of the Kansas City Symphony played two pieces — From Adagio movement, String Quintet in C, Franz Schubert and Deux Ames au Ciel, Jacques Offenbach — and Morton’s eldest granddaughter, Sarah, offered a poem, “The Mill,” written by English poet Andrew Motion. Light flooded the foyer, as family and friends left the hall.

About The Author: Gaylord Torrence

Gaylord Torrence

Gaylord Torrence is Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He led the creation of the institution’s galleries, opened in 2010, and curated the celebrated 2014-15 exhibition “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.” Most recently, he guest curated the new installation of Native American art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the author of “The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting.”

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