The Seductive Branding of Phoebe Greenberg

(L): Portrait of Phoebe Greenberg. Photo: Richard Bernardin. (R): Photo of the famous diving horse at the Steel Pier on Atlantic City boardwalk. Courtesy of Pier Amusements.
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Phoebe Greenberg occupies a unique position in Montreal’s art community, as well as in Canada – and she’s made sure of it. The former theater professional occupies rarefied air in her taste, vision, acumen, and financial freedom, and she maintains that heightened posture with apparent avidity. Wielding a piercing presence, and wearing what looked like a diamond choker (she has called this kind of flourish “costume”), she communicates through maxims that read as both deeply-held beliefs and codified nods to her particular power. Even in a fluorescent-lit room where a fridge hums loudly – as the one where we met, this January, in one of her buildings – her presence felt cultivated, and undeniably forceful.

The heir to, and co-owner of the Minto Group, a major Canadian real estate company, Greenberg had the means and desire to found two leading art and culture centers in Old Montreal: DHC/ART Foundation (2007), and Centre Phi (2012). The first is a private (and free to the public) museum that breaks with tradition: instead of focusing on its founder’s collection (Greenberg doesn’t see herself as much of one), and with no mandate to collect, DHC is rather committed to world-class exhibition-making. The second is run as a business, and focuses on “high-tech and interdisciplinary approaches to creation.” It recently exhibited Spheres, a virtual reality experience directed by Eliza McNitt that will, for the first time in Phi’s history, tour. It’s headed to the Rockefeller Center in New York.

These initiatives are what art historian Reesa Greenberg – who happens to be Phoebe’s second cousin – terms “niche museums.” She explains that DHC’s “primary function is to fill a niche in a given place at a given time – expanding the museum landscape.” The Foundation has indeed filled a gap and raised the bar in terms of bringing high-level, international exhibitions to Canadian audiences. It presents a program apparently in service of little compromise. DHC opened their doors with a five-story exhibition of Marc Quinn, and since then, have featured artists including Bill Viola, Jenny Holzer, Ed Atkins, the Chapman Brothers, and Joan Jonas, among many others.

It should be noted that DHC doesn’t exhibit much in the way of Canadian art, something for which they’ve received criticism. “The Foundation is not focused on Canadian artists, but audiences,” Greenberg explained in an interview with Sarah Thornton for DHC’s (door-stopping) tenth-anniversary book. Typically setting her sights on solo exhibitions by leading international artists – shows with major production value, “Phoebe likes dark, iconoclastic art with a weird sense of humor,” offered managing director and curator, Cheryl Sim.

The Foundation will open a solo exhibition of Yoko Ono on April 24th, coinciding with DHC’s shift to a new name, “Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain.” This is something Greenberg, 55, discusses as being “about succession and moving forward.” “I wanted to consolidate my branding,” she says, referring to Centre Phi. Momus publisher Sky Goodden took this occasion to sit down with Greenberg and discuss the timing of her decision, as well as DHC’s origins and mandate. What emerges is the seduction and brand of Greenberg, herself.

You’re moving DHC/ART under the Phi name, to align these two centers more closely. You’ve talked about this being motivated by a desire to ferment and cohere your legacy. Before we discuss that decision, though, I’d like to hear the origin story. If you can kind of take me back to where DHC and Centre Phi began. 

My background is actually theater. I went to l’École de Jacques Lecoq [a laboratory of movement study, exploring the relationship between movement and architecture], and subsequently spent nearly a decade in France and Europe afterwards, working with various touring companies after I had graduated from the school. I also during my time there studied the elaborate study of movement, really based through the body and translated into architectural form. This is kind of an important part of my background because it really translates, I think, into some of the essential ideas that I have about not only presenting art, but thinking about the dynamics of space. Then I started my own theater company. Somebody had sent me a postcard of a carnival in the 19th century of a horse going off a diving board and at the time this sort of absurdity and the carnival aspect of it was a little bit close to my theater, which was so much in the absurd world. So I called it Diving Horse Creations.

Is there an aspect of risk that’s involved in that as well? That image?

Good question. I never thought of it that way, but certainly I’m plunging into nothing I’ve done in recent history. I think it’s really about trying to imagine what the future might look like for the next generation and how people consume culture. I think if you’re looking at it from that point of view, there’s a necessity to take risks. One of the origins of DHC Foundation, which is now a Phi Foundation, was really this idea to be responsive to what was happening globally in terms of the best ideas. I think that most foundations are usually the collection of the people that founded them. And I liked the ephemeral side of the foundation. So I think that this notion that we do two exhibitions a year, that we try to be at the forefront of what I think might have the most impactful or resonating experience with our Montreal audiences, is really critical in the sense that we’re small enough to be responsive but large enough to be able to accommodate really great pieces of art.

That being said, the Phi Foundation was born out of my observation of the tapestry of contemporary art. And as younger artists started to move into a more digital practice, the architecture housing these works were not necessarily equipped to accommodate that vision.

Installation view, “Bill Viola: Naissance à rebours,” 2017-18, DHC/ART. Bill Viola, Ascension, 2000. Courtesy of the artist. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

That gets to a question I wanted to ask around what you saw yourself complementing in the landscape, both locally here in Montreal and on a national and even international scale. Were you seeing a certain lack that you wanted to address? Or, alternatively, perhaps seeing Montreal’s inclination to spectacle, its fore-fronting technological advances, its proclivity toward interdisciplinary practices as a result of strong theater and dance scenes. Were you addressing a gap you saw, or wanting to tap into particular characteristics already present?

I don’t know if I would say it was specifically about Montreal, in terms of complementing or filling in a gap. I was more thinking about, in principle, what the offering was for contemporary art at the time. It really was a larger-scale museum versus a more commercial gallery. If there was a foundation, as I mentioned, it was generally seen as a collection. So, having had the opportunity of living in Europe and really feeling that, because of the availability of art in Paris, it was my domestic reality to be able to see art and have it at my fingertips, I wanted to create an environment where our contemporary art was accessible. So, a mid-sized museum without any commercial ambition sort of fulfills that promise.

The education of it was also important to me, because I thought that people misunderstand [art] if they don’t have an educational arm. So we have offered, through our education programming and also for ancillary programming, a contextualization for these ideas. Now, this was my thinking fourteen years ago.

But I think in terms of, to get back to your question, the first notion was accessibility, context, and bringing the best art and investing in ideas and being responsive to what I felt would be impactful to Montreal.

Installation view, “Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See,” 2014, DHC/ART. From left to right: Jake and Dinos Chapman, “Approximation,” 2013; “Fucking with Nature (Somewhere Between Tennis Elbow and Wanker’s Cramp),” 2013; “Disasters of War IV,” 2001 (at the back left side); “The Disease Within the Disease,” 2013 (at the back right side). © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Five years after DHC was up and running, you decided to start Centre Phi. What was the impulse born from?

I was always trying to keep an eye on what artists were using in their arsenal for creating either stories or ideas. Again, I’m looking at artists who are born into the world post-internet. It’s a completely different conversation in many respects and I think that constantly engaging with the next generation is really important because it keeps the city alive. Montreal, because of its youth and the fact that it is not an expensive city to live in, attracts young artists. And also, as you mentioned earlier, a diversity of discipline – there’s a big history of modern dance here, certainly theater. There’s a lot of cross-pollination in these disciplines. We do rely on being at the axis of art and technology – certainly as we move towards storytelling in virtual reality, augmented reality, and other contemporary media.

So for me, I also see that moving us towards the future. The Phi Centre really relies on that principle – we have a multipurpose music venue, but it also doubles as a studio. We have exhibition spaces that can also be a sound stage. We have areas where we can have artists’ talks and gathering places that are either social or more academic. I wanted to not only accommodate all of that, but also this notion of an archiving core – of leaving a trace.

Installation view, “Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself,” 2007, DHC/ART. © Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris, 2017, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

I want to better understand the funding structure. As I understand it, you don’t seek the support of the various government bodies. You aren’t commercial. One venue charges admission (Centre Phi) and the other doesn’t (DHC). Can we talk about how all of this functions?

As far as DHC is concerned, it is my gift to the city. It’s a not-for-profit, and we have a charitable status. It is meant to bring art from around the world, art of an international caliber, to the city of Montreal. I was fortunate enough in my lifetime to be able to travel the world. Most people don’t have the opportunity to see some of these things I’ve seen. So, accessibility in education and opportunity, I think that’s extremely important. To make a gesture toward improving our city with the best ideas: that is my philanthropic gesture. Where Centre Phi is concerned, it is a for-profit organization and we do receive money from the government for projects, or support for some of our exhibitions, or sponsorship. I think we’re well anchored in the community, and I’m more and more we’re finding solutions to make it a viable enterprise.

How you’ve been able to work with such outstanding talent? Right from the start, you had artists like Cory Arcangel, Thomas Demand, John Currin, Sophie Calle, Christian Marclay, and even your group shows are stacked with massive talent. Can you talk to me a bit about … how did you do that? [laughs]

I’m pretty seductive when I want to be. [laughs] I have to say, in particular, that Marc Quinn was the first one to say yes for the foundation and we opened the doors with him. And that was a huge gift, right? So that sets a certain tone, especially when you’re embarking on a new adventure that nobody fully understands. I think he was very generous by believing in my story. So that was followed by artists like Sophie Calle or Christian Marclay. Later on, we could take a little more risk with some younger and less well-known artists. But by that time we had traction, not only in our positioning in the community, but also our team. Because it’s not just about Phoebe Greenberg. As I get older, I’m, delighted by the team that I built over the years. So now, when we’re bringing in really great ideas and people, it’s because of the team.

Installation view, “Joan Jonas: From Away,” 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, “Volcano Saga,” 1985/1994. Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

How do you make your programming choices? Is it about just taking notes as you travel? Is it about reading? Are you trying to create a certain narrative? Is there an aesthetic that you can identify?

I would say a lot of it is being in the world. Travel is certainly part of it. Cheryl Sim [Managing Director and Curator] is an academic, so she does a great deal of reading. I try to stay abreast, not only in the artworld, but in the world in general. Really I think that sometimes the ideas are born from a need. As you know, our next show is Yoko Ono. I’m particularly concentrating on some of her activism that was peaceful and has become iconic in making statements in a nonviolent way. I’m really trying to be out there and, and, and be sensitive to, to our collective consciousness.

Well your instincts are proving to be solid. I’m curious if you have advice for, or insight into some of the impasses that other Canadian institutions struggle with, around the forever-question of Canadian versus international, of confidence, and of fighting past middling to high-quality production. You don’t seem to be struggling on these fronts, and that might be informed by your financial freedom. But what’s your read on the exceptions and the rules in Canadian exhibiting culture?

I certainly think Canadians have something to say, but I think that we should recognize that we are young, as a country, and that we attract youth. I think there’s a generosity of spirit, here, and maybe we don’t recognize how valuable that is on the planet. I feel extraordinarily privileged to be Canadian and to live in Montreal.

For example, we have conferences here on the world of VR and contemporary media is tiny. We bring in the most extraordinary minds from MIT to California to France and England. You had said earlier about Montreal identifying in the world of technology and artificial intelligence and there’s a big gaming community here, as you know. And I’m not convinced that young people in their twenties have the same vision or fear of stumbling blocks that maybe bigger institutions have come across. I think things are changing. I think things are shifting and I think communities are being born without thinking about where they are. As in, “Yes that is my domestic reality, but where is my mind?” And that to me is the conversation that I’m passionate about.

Installation view, “Spheres,” 2019. Credit: Sandra Larochelle.

You do seem uniquely forward facing and especially aware of things like legacy, especially as DHC changes its profile to align its – as you put it to Canadian Art – branding. Can you talk a bit about why now and what inspired this particular impulse? Some might argue this is an early moment in your career to be giving such consideration to legacy.

Good question. Maybe I’ll talk about the notion of team. As I was embarking in earlier years, the name Phoebe Greenberg was more present because people were trying to put the puzzle pieces together. And then my hope as soon as possible was to get the attention put on the artist, which I think has successfully been done. I was never terribly concerned about the attention on the institutions except for an invitation to come. So I think as I mature and the trace that is left behind, I want to make sure that the team without Phoebe Greenberg will function. And it’s better to do it when I’m enthusiastic, energetic, and passionate, then when I’m less-so. It’s also very important to empower the people around you. People stay or go because you give them responsibility. I just turned 55. I don’t have the same point of view of somebody who’s 25, but I certainly would like to hear what they have to say. I’ve had the opportunity to be the author of my future.

You’ve worked with some giants. I’m curious who, in your 12 years of programming DHC, has surprised you?

Everyone, for completely different reasons. Sometimes personalities surprised me, you know. I’ve had the opportunity to see the poetry and and the human. But I might leave it at that. [smiles]

That’s fair, I guess. But if I can ask the question without wanting to fall into gossip, but more on the line of, did you see anything achieved through DHC’s program, for instance, with some of these larger, more iconic artists, where it felt like a departure or rather than a continuation for the artist?

Hmm. I think, in terms of the point of the career of most of the artists that we’ve presented, they’re pretty established in their practice and their language. Like the Chapman Brothers, for example – sometimes we’re closer to a studio, and there’s a fine line between installation and production. But we stay on this side of installation so we don’t get really involved in, in any kind of conversation about new works and their production. We really work on how we can contextualize it.

In the production of this massive volume, in celebration of 10 years, were there any revelations around what you’ve built that came shuttering through? It’s a unique opportunity to bookend a decade and gain some distance from what you’ve produced in this way.

I was humbled and I cried a few tears, I have to say. But I think that what I’m amazed by and continue to be grateful for is how well we managed to integrate into the daily lives of the city.

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