Helen Forbes Fields
2020 SPECIAL CITATION FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE ARTS
The summer of 1979 after her sophomore year at Spelman College represents the turning point for Helen Forbes Fields’ love of art. Although she doesn’t remember visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art as a child, she had become intrigued by a visual arts survey class that year and finally felt emboldened to visit. A little nervous, she started with a Jean Chardin special exhibit featuring his iconic still life paintings with “dead rabbits hanging upside down, drying,” and then wandered throughout the museum.
“I became hooked, just loved it, loved being in the museum space,” she says. “When I returned to Spelman, I took every art class that was offered, and from then until today it became where my art focus has truly been.”
Helen went on to graduate from the Howard University School of Law, and then returned to Cleveland to practice law, while becoming increasingly involved in supporting the visual arts through her involvement with CMA. She first joined a young adults group. Then Ernestine Brown, arts advocate, educator and co-owner with her late husband of the Malcolm Brown Gallery, became her mentor and nominated her for the museum’s Women’s Committee. Initially, she agreed to serve on a variety of boards, but then realized she needed to narrow her focus.
“Everything I’ve done in the museum space is a result of my love of the arts,” says Helen, who joined the United Way of Greater Cleveland in 2016 and now serves as Executive Vice President and General Counsel. “I decided I would focus my board service with institutions where I loved the mission, so much of my focus is on the arts.” Prior to United Way, she was a partner in Forbes, Fields and Associates Co, LPA, one of the oldest minority owned and controlled law firms in Ohio co-founded by her father, former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes.
Shortly after she married Darrell A. Fields, the two attorneys began to collect art. Helen immersed herself in reading about and following certain artists in her genres of deepest interest: African and particularly African American art. “I realized I wasn’t seeing as much in terms of African American artists in museums, and I want to see works that I can identify with personally,” she relates. “So as I became active here in the arts and joined various museums, my central focus became about creating more welcoming spaces for communities, artists and curators of color.”
That is true of the art the couple collects, too, especially since they wanted their children – William, Camille and Brandon – surrounded by art that told stories they could relate to as they were growing up.
Helen has served on the CMA’s board since 2005 and is currently Vice Chair. She served on MOCA’s board for several years, and is now the Chair of the Board for FRONT International, a new contemporary art triennial based in Cleveland. She also served on the Cleveland Arts Prize board, and continues to serve on the Advisory Board of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the board of Cuyahoga Community College.
She has served as Chair of the Collections Committee and Nominating and Governance Committee at CMA. For many years, Helen has chaired CMA’s African American Advisory Committee that advises the museum on best ways to connect with the African American community.
“That group came about when Bob Bergman was still alive, so we’ve been talking about and working on these issues for many years,” she informs. “The diversity initiatives came together, were committed to and put into an actual plan under Bill Griswold.” She is anxious to see the plan fully implemented and monitored in the near future.
“Helen has been at the forefront of bringing attention to those issues at the museum as well as increasing the museum’s collection of African American art,” says her friend Sharon Milligan, PhD, associate professor of Social Work and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. “Most of the African American art has been acquired since the ’60s, and she has been part of that history.”
Additionally, Helen has served on several other boards throughout the City of Cleveland, including Karamu House, Cleveland Zoological Society, Cleveland Institute of Art, College Now, and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.
“Anyone who knows me well knows of my love of the arts,” she concludes. “I love learning about the artists and looking at how their work relates to me. I also enjoy the solitude of being in the museum and looking at the beauty of the objects, all of which widens my view of the world.”