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Remembering Toby Lewis

February 16, 2024
Three women smiling

Toby Devan Lewis with Josie Anderson (left) and Marianne Bernadotte (right)

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection of contemporary art, which comprises works made after 1960 to the present day, features artists who represent the expansive range of perspectives, backgrounds, and identities that reflect and illuminate the world in which we live. The contemporary collection carries forward in time stories whose beginnings are told elsewhere throughout the museum’s historical collections.

A bright blue blue Z going corner to rorner at an angle on a black background
Mardi Soir, 1973. Carmen Herrera (American, b. Cuba, 1915–2022). Acrylic on canvas; 106.7 x 162.6 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2022.39

For the past six decades, the contemporary collection has continued to grow, not just in number of works, but also in its reputation. While many individuals have lent their support, guidance, and insight into how the CMA collects and presents contemporary art, Toby Devan Lewis is acknowledged for the significant impact she has had on the collection.

Known among her peers as a respected collector and generous philanthropist, Lewis passed away in April 2022, but her legacy as an influencer and supporter for arts and cultural institutions in both her native New York and Cleveland lives on. Born in 1934 in Brooklyn as Toby Devan, she later joined the Progressive Corporation, the third-largest insurance company in the US, where her former husband, Peter B. Lewis, was CEO and chairman of the board at the time. She served as the founding curator of the company’s world-class contemporary art collection from 1985 to 2005.

A view of the contemporary galleries with a white topless sculpture of a woman wearing a reed skirt in front of four colorful paintingsAfter having moved to Cleveland in 1955, she later became involved with arts and cultural institutions in the early 1970s. Her love for contemporary art and her talent for discovering artists greatly influenced institutions and organizations in Northeast Ohio, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Case Western Reserve University, Ideastream, the Cleveland International Film Festival, and the Playhouse Square Foundation. In 2006 she established the Toby Fund, a private foundation, to support the arts, education, health initiatives, the environment, and the development of progressive institutions. As part of the annual Cleveland Arts Prize, she received the 2007 Martha Joseph Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts.

painting of black teenager in green sweatshirt
He was meant for all things to meet, 2022. Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973). Oil on linen; 137.5 x 109.4 x 6.4 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2023.5. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Lewis joined the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2014, at a time when the museum was transitioning to appointing trustees who champion modern and contemporary art, after decades in which it did not collect robustly in those areas. “Toby Lewis challenged us to consider works from emerging artists and underrepresented artists,” director William M. Griswold says. “Her impact is reflected in the acquisitions made in the past several years to enhance the contemporary collection.”

Significant recent additions include He was meant for all things to meet (2022), a portrait by leading African American painter Amy Sherald (b. 1973), who is known for her representations of Black American subjects, including the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama. The acquisition of Mardi Soir (1973) by Cuban American artist Carmen Herrera (1915–2022) is among the major additions of works by Latin American and Latinx artists. To complement its renowned holdings of historical Asian art, the CMA has in recent years added pieces by contemporary Korean artists Haegue Yang (b. 1971) and Park Seo-Bo (1931–2023). 

In 2021 the CMA began telling the story of contemporary art in a bold new way through the comprehensive reinstallation of the galleries, incorporating fresh viewpoints to create new experiences for visitors. Included in the reinstallation is Toby’s Gallery for Contemporary Art (229A, 229C), named in 2016 to recognize Lewis and her impact on the collection. 

“Our approach to collecting and presenting contemporary art is aimed at keeping the CMA’s mission vital at this moment in history,” curator of contemporary art Emily Liebert says. “We can thank Toby Lewis for helping us to get to where we are today and for inspiring us with her vision.”

This spring, the CMA will bring its contemporary program to international audiences. The museum has partnered with the Cincinnati Art Museum to co-organize Shahzia Sikander: Collective Behavior (April 20 to October 20, 2024) at Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel in Venice as a Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale (see page 26).