The final piece of contemporary art showcased in the new coffee-table book from Progressive depicts a series of four photos of a brick wall — an attempt to capture the essence of an ever-changing work of art. A tree grows out of a floor, climbs 16 feet up a plain corridor wall (frame 1), flowers (frame 2), matures (frame 3) and begins to drop its leaves (frame 4) as the piece continues its cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
The striking video installation is Toby Devan Lewis’ last addition to the massive private art collection she spent more than 20 years building, and the symbolism is ripe for interpretation. We spoke with her about the book she curated, “Artworks: The Progressive Collection,” in a conversation that roamed from the corporate sensibility of the ’70s to Toni Morrison and to the highlights of a collection that contains more than 6,300 pieces of art.
How did the collection begin?
Progressive used to be at 36th and Euclid in a little flat building when I first came to Cleveland [in the mid ’50s]. ... And it began to grow. In the early ’70s, it was decided to move out to Wilson Mills and I-271. It was a very stylized building, a ’70s building, and Peter [B. Lewis, her former husband] decided that it would be great to put contemporary art on the walls, to have plants all over with their botanical names, so that the people who worked so hard there, and for so many hours, were able to learn while they worked.
How did Toni Morrison end up writing the foreward to the book?
We finally narrowed it down to, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were somebody from Northeastern Ohio?” Because this is a company housed here, even though it’s national. All of a sudden I said, “I’ve got it. Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, and she would be the perfect person. A Nobel Prize winner.” Everybody, meanwhile, is looking at me like I have lost my marbles. They cannot believe I’m talking about Toni Morrison doing the foreword. So I said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” [After a month and a half of waiting], my cell phone rang — it was Toni Morrison! I answered, and she said, “Toby, I’m gonna do it.”
What was it like to buy all this art?
There’s an Andy Warhol in [the book], and I purchased it before he died. I hemmed and hawed and looked at this piece and couldn’t make my mind up, and I looked behind me — this was in the ’80s — and there were three groups of people waiting for me to make my decision, so that they could pounce on the piece, and that convinced me that I was standing there first in line looking at a really important piece. And, of course, Andy died shortly after that.
Are there any pieces in the collection that you wish were yours to keep?
There’s one piece here that I keep looking at, it’s a Louise Lawler — that’s one piece that I say, “Why didn’t I buy that for myself? Why did I buy that for Progressive?” I took the job very seriously — when I went to buy, I bought for Progressive. I saw this piece [two images of Marilyn Monroe], and I loved that piece — that had to be in the book, because it was sort of, “Oh, my goodness, I would have loved to buy that.”
"Artworks: The Progressive Collection” is available at local bookstores and at Amazon.com.A Tree Grows inMayfieldJennifer Steinkamp’s