Collector’s Corner is a recurring interview feature that checks in with art collectors around the world.
The New York real-estate developer Francis Greenburger has bought art regularly for more than three decades, but, he told me recently, he didn’t realize he was actually a collector until 15 years ago, when a curator working for him handed him a memo that had “The Francis J. Greenburger Collection” written at the top. His response: “What’s that?”
“I always thought I was an accidental collector,” Greenburger said, sitting in his 15th-floor West Village office along with the curator of his collection, Jennie Lanmensdorf.
The Francis J. Greenburger Collection now has around 1,000 pieces, Lamensdorf said. “That many?” Greenburger asked in disbelief. She nodded.
“Good grief,” he said. “You lose track.”
Greenburger seemed to really mean it. Sixty-five years old, he is reserved and modest, and has a tendency to bring his voice to just a few decibels above a murmur, often, ironically, when he says something profound. Over the course of the interview he shared stories from his impressive life in art as if they were no big deal—that he used to chat with famed art critic Clement Greenberg, that he bought his first work of art when he was 14, that a Helen Frankenthaler hangs in his dining room.
His support for artists has gone beyond just buying their work. In 1985, he created the Francis J. Greenburger Awards, which go to under-recognized artists every two years. Picked by art-world insiders, they include unrestricted grants of $12,500. He stays out of the selection process, he said, recalling a conversation with the dealer André Emmerich, in which Emmerich told him, “The best and brightest of each generation are known, but not to everyone. Ask the inner circle, and they can tell you.”
Among this year’s recipients were the painter Malcolm Morley, the pick of collectors Christine and Andy Hall, and Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, who was selected by the art historian Claire Bishop. This format, Greenburger said, was not entirely his own idea. “Even though that was a wonderful outcome, it was part of a whole back-and-forth that I had with Clem [Greenberg] that led to that conclusion,” Greenburger said. “It was really more his obstinacy than anything else. But, in the end, of course, the fact now that whoever it is and gets up to the artists and says, ‘I, Frank Stella,’ or, ‘I, so and so,’ or, ‘I, director of whatever museum’ has more meaning than Francis Greenburger.”
“For the people that we select on the jury, we try to make sure that those individuals, though prominent, have demonstrated an interest in non-brand-name—people with significant careers who have never skyrocketed to pop-culture status,” said Lamensdorf, who suggests jurors to Greenburger.
When the subject of the market comes up, Greenburger is clear: he has never sold a single piece in his collection. “For me, art is not a financial object,” he said. “It’s something to appreciate, revere. It would be like selling a lover.”
Greenburger’s passion for art led him to found the Omi International Arts Center (pronounced “oh my”), in upstate New York, in 1992. Designed as a place for artist residencies, Omi has become a showcase for new or underrated talent. “My line is that it’s harder to get into Omi than Harvard—we only take 2 percent of applicants,” Greenburger joked. (And, if he’s particularly thrilled by those accepted applicants, he might buy a piece or two from them as well.)
Meanwhile, in New York City, and also in Detroit, the Caribbean, suburban New Jersey, Toronto, and Montreal, Greenburger oversees the Art in Buildings program, which brings site-specific works to places that don’t usually accommodate art. Among of the buildings to be a part of the program was 125 Maiden Lane, which is owned by Time Equities. “To be honest, when I was looking at buying the buildings, I walked into the lobby, and I noticed there was this empty space that wasn’t part of the normal lobby flow,” Greenburger said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could put some art there.’ ”
Lamensdorf described one project she curated by Justin Cooper for Art in Buildings. Cooper created a large sculptural installation that combined Post-It notes, Astroturf, pencils, and office supplies, among other things. It was too much to take in at once, and that was very much the point. “I really like installing projects that are interesting upon repeat viewings,” Lamensdorf said. “Unlike a museum or a gallery, we have people seeing this work maybe four or five times a day because they’re coming in and out of their office four or five times a day…It reveals itself over time.”
Lamensdorf said she loved the first work she helped Greenburger acquire—a Halsey Hathaway painting that they had seen in Art in America, in a review of a show of work by the New York–based abstract painter at Storefront Bushwick. “It’s kind of like my first child,” she said.
Greenburger admitted to loving his Stanley Whitney and the paintings he owns by Color Field painter Stephen Mueller. But then, not wanting to form a definitive answer, he changed his mind. “To some degree, I love all my children,” he said. “Not always equally, but pretty close.”