Ivy Beth Lewis of Cleveland will remember her mother, Toby Devan Lewis, as a vibrant trailblazer in all aspects of her life – professional, personal and philanthropic. Lewis died at her home in Cleveland on April 29 at 87 – a long life lived to the fullest, her daughter told the Cleveland Jewish News.
“She was just so involved in many things,” she said. “She and our dad were very involved and shared all of that with us. It was so fun. It was always a vibrant, exciting, comfortable home and she was always present. When you needed her, she was there, and you know, at the same time she was very much in the world. But when you needed her, she knew it. She was so intuitive.”
Toby was known for her more than 20-year career at the Progressive Corp., where she compiled an art collection of emerging artists. By the end of her tenure in 2005, she collected more than 6,300 works for the insurer. The collection has been rated as one of the country’s top collections by Art & Auction Magazine. She also commissioned artists to illustrate the company’s annual reports.
But, her love for art wasn’t inherent – it was also something she curated over her life, her daughter said.
“I was in third grade when she started modeling, doing that for several years at various department stores around town,” Ivy Lewis said. “She then created a position for herself, called a personal shopper, which is like a stylist today. Fashion was her first foray into the working world, at a time when it was pretty novel for women to be working. And then she transitioned into the art world.”
Lewis recalled her mother would frequent a small gallery on Bellflower Road in Cleveland and those visits were “influential on my mother’s life.”
“She gobbled that knowledge up,” she said, noting that led to her time at Progressive, where her then-ex-husband Peter B. Lewis was CEO and hired her for the curatorial job. “She worked her way up. Both of my parents were real trailblazers in that sense and my mom was a total trend setter. My dad (Peter B. Lewis) had a philosophy of hiring the best and letting them do their thing. He recognized that in my mom and hired her to curate the Progressive collection after their divorce. Though their marriage didn’t last a lifetime, their friendship did.”
Outside of her time at the company, Toby headed public relations, sales and marketing at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, which later became moCa Cleveland. She served on the board beginning in 1986. She received the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Martha Joseph Prize for Distinguished Service for the Arts in 2007. In 1996 and 2004, Lewis also received the Award of Excellence from the International Association of Professional Art Advisors. In 1998, she was honored by The New Museum for her contributions to bringing visual arts and creative experiences to the work environment. In 2009, she was honored by ArtTable NY for her contributions to the arts.
When she retired from Progressive, Ivy Lewis said her mother turned her eye to the philanthropic world, focusing her energy on art, social justice and the environment. In 2006, she created the TOBY Fund, a foundation dedicated to fostering creativity in arts, education, health, the environment and progressive institutions, giving Master of Fine Arts students at several schools grants of $10,000 to help them launch their careers.
Lewis also gave major gifts to the New Museum in New York City, where she served on the board from 1995 to 2020. She also served on the boards of Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Film Festival, the Cleveland Institute of Art and Performa. She also gave significant contributions to the New Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Clinic and the ACLU.
“She was really a force of nature,” Lewis said of her mother. “She had such joie de vivre. She had many close friendships, and she listened and saw you. She showed up and was a lot of fun to be with. She brought light into every room she walked into. She made everything fun and was a good friend, mom and grandmom. She’ll be much missed and already is.”
If she could talk to her mother one last time, Lewis said she’d keep it simple.
“I just want her to know how much I admired her strength, integrity and way of being,” she said.
In addition to her daughter, Ivy Beth Lewis, Toby Lewis is survived by her sons, Jonathan Lewis (Mark Zitelli) of Miami, Fla., and Adam (Melony) Lewis of Aspen, Colo.; grandchildren, Ariel (Christopher) Green of Lake Forest, Ill., Augusta (Harrison Silver) Powell of Washington, D.C., Max Lewis and Ben Lewis of Aspen, and her great-granddaughter, Eva Green; her brother, Fred Devan of Piermont, N.Y.; her brother-in-law, Daniel Lewis of Miami; and many beloved nieces and nephews. Her grandson, Dakota William Powell, predeceased her in 2017.
Donations in her memory can be made to the New Museum (newmuseum.org) or Jewish National Fund (jnf.org).