In Memoriam: Mary Davidson (1936-2021)

Mary Davidson (photo by Susan McSpadden)

Kansas City mourns the loss of a fervent advocate and patron for the arts, humanities and education

During my first meeting with Mary Davidson several decades ago, I was immediately struck by her passionate love of the arts, history and education. She regaled me with tales of travel throughout Kansas with her husband, Bart Cohen. Their trips often involved research regarding early Jewish settlements, as well as frequent forays into antique shops, museums and galleries. Along the way, Mary and Bart discovered the best restaurants in small towns across the state. Mary would gleefully ask, “Do you want to know where the best fried chicken is in the state or the best cherry pie?” Needless to say, I was all ears!

On many of their trips, Mary and Bart would acquire works of art by Kansas artists. These acquisitions filled their beautiful Leawood home and fueled Mary’s interest in the arts. Following Bart’s death, and the creation of the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Fund, Mary emerged as a major patron of area art museums and organizations, funding exhibitions, acquisitions, building projects and endowments. As Julián Zugazagoitia, director/CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, related, “She enthusiastically supported many exhibitions and education programs, not only at the Nelson-Atkins, but throughout the city. As a brilliant connector, and in a spirit of sharing her passion about the arts with many, she always brought friends and colleagues to galas and events.”

Mary supported arts organizations and museums not only through funding, but by serving on numerous boards and committees. Her prestigious educational background and considerable business acumen proved invaluable to many. As Zugazagoitia stated, “Mary generously shared her insights on management, the arts, education, and any topic that would come our way during our lunches in Rozzelle Court.” As board president and then interim director of the National WWI Museum and Memorial, she helped guide this major iconic institution during a critical period of its history.

Most recently, Mary was president of the Kansas City Museum Foundation board, helping to shepherd the historic museum through its acclaimed restoration/renovation and grand re-opening this past fall. As Anna Marie Tutera, executive director of the museum, expressed, “Mary loved Kansas City! At every turn, through all of her contributions, Mary was committed to ensuring opportunities for learning together and advancing the greater good of our community.”

While I have focused on Mary’s support of area museums, she was also significantly committed to funding numerous other organizations, especially educational institutions, the Kansas City Symphony and The Temple, B’nai Jehudah. Her support of education was reflective of her professional experience as a lifelong educator. During her career, Mary taught in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district, served as assistant to the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Kansas Regents Center (1976-1992), and in 2002 was appointed to be the United States Secretary of Education’s Regional Representative for Region VII. Among her innumerable awards and accolades was her recognition in 2014 as Kansas City’s Philanthropist of the Year. The following year (2015), she was named JCCC’s Johnson Countian of the Year.

Mary was fond of telling me that she preferred to award fewer, but larger, grants, in an effort to achieve maximum effect. Certainly, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art benefited enormously from her largesse. In 2005, a second-floor space in the soon-to-open museum was designated as the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Gallery. In 2009, she created the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Art Acquisition Endowment for the museum. Later, Mary gave the funds to realize the popular Kansas Focus Gallery in the museum’s lobby. Her love of Kansas artists had come full circle.

This past December, the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Fund made another very generous donation to the Nerman. According to JoAnne Northrup, executive director and chief curator of the Nerman, “This gift will enable us to complete the extensive conservation of the iconic Leo Villareal light sculpture, ‘Microcosm,’ that illuminates the front cantilever of the Nerman. In the coming months, it will once again light up the eyes and minds of the JCCC community!”

Mary has been described as compassionate, tenacious, brilliant, quick-witted, inspiring, empathetic and a force of nature. She was all of these . . . and a dear friend to many, including myself.

Mary possessed an insatiable curiosity and mischievous sense of humor. I relish the moment when she unexpectedly introduced me to a woman as her fiancé, stating that she and I had only recently become engaged. The woman was nonplussed (as was I) and could only mutter, “When is your wedding date?” Quickly pointing to her ring finger, Mary replied, “Not until Bruce finds me a really big diamond ring!” We all had a great laugh.

Later, I told Mary that my reputation could only be enhanced by starting such a rumor, but I wasn’t sure what it might do for hers. She exclaimed, “Honey, at my age that’s the least of my concerns!”

With her passing in December of 2021, our community lost one of its most fervent advocates and patrons for the arts, humanities and education. Mary helped light the way for many. She deserved the biggest diamond ring!

–Bruce Hartman


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