The Phi Foundation of Montreal wants to make art an urban routine

Infinity mirror room – Brilliance of the souls, 2014, by Yayoi Kusama.Kerry McFate/The Phi Foundation

In the lobby of the Phi Center in Old Montreal, young and middle-aged people, tourists and locals, lounge on cushions, half-eyeing a video installation about sexual identities while relaxing or discussing. Their attention is more focused upstairs, where they can experience several VR documentaries on topics as varied as China’s treatment of Uyghurs and the experience of schizophrenia.

A block north of the center-affiliated Phi Foundation, the art gallery’s vibe is quieter and more reverential, though the current exhibit is an exhibition by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama that will appeal to the public. crowd and which includes two of its overflow rooms lined with mirrors. In the basement, children bounce on oversized soft sculptures in a participatory installation set up by a local collective.

All of these immersive and interactive art offerings are brought to the public by the singular vision of cultural philanthropist Phoebe Greenberg. Since 2007, his non-profit Phi Foundation – named after the Greek letter that represents the golden mean, or balance – has worked to make provocative contemporary art accessible to a wide audience. In the spring, he unveiled plans for a $100 million expansion that will revitalize a cluster of heritage buildings in Old Montreal.

The path of my love, 2013, by Yayoi Kusama.Tim Nighswander/The Phi Foundation

“I’ve always loved this city, I must admit. It’s a bit punk,” Greenberg said of his vision for an institution that would make contemporary art part of people’s urban routine.

The foundation, which is free (unlike the center), may encourage a laid-back visit, but it’s certainly also an upscale gallery experience. It was launched in 2007 as DHC/Art (from Diving Horse Creations, Greenberg’s former theater company) with an exhibition of works by British multimedia artist Marc Quinn. Since then, it has devoted exhibitions to the best and brightest – leading American artists such as Christian Marclay, Jenny Holzer and Bill Viola – and to the greatest too: a 2019 Yoko Ono exhibition included the visual art of John Lennon.

The particularity of this center of contemporary art, at least in Canada, is that it does not receive any public money. Greenberg, who grew up in Ottawa and studied in Montreal and at the Jacques Lecoq Theater School in Paris, is the heir to the fortune of the development company Minto. The foundation, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary but was only renamed Phi in 2019, is a non-profit association entirely financed by private funds. There are perhaps only two other current examples of this type of institution in Canada: the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal and the Esker Foundation in Calgary, also dedicated to contemporary art.

The Love I Met in Heaven, 2016, by Yayoi Kusama.The Phi Foundation

“The experience of opening this foundation where there really wasn’t a comparable model in North America was a huge risk and this city embraced it from day one,” Greenberg said.

Meanwhile, the Phi Centre, which opened 10 years ago, focuses on technology and the visual arts, hence its current emphasis on virtual reality. In theory, it’s a for-profit company that rotates some of its programming — Greenberg says it’s “moving closer to a sustainable model” — and charges ticket prices that vary from show to show. . The idea seems to be that it should break even while behind the scenes it functions as an incubator for ideas that could have commercial applications.

Greenberg is passionate about the potential of virtual reality, but also buys contemporary art of the kind you hang on the wall: examples are scattered throughout the hallways and offices of Phi. Yet, unlike most other major philanthropic acts in the visual arts in North America, this institution is not built around the private collection of a wealthy individual.

“I don’t want it to be Phoebe Greenberg. I am not building a monument to myself,” she said.

Phoebe Greenberg, Founder and Director of the Center and Phi Foundation in their gallery, at the Phi Center in Old Montreal on July 12.Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

Observers point to the stability of the foundation’s staff – director and chief curator Cheryl Sim has been there since 2014 – as evidence that Phi works as a collaborative institution, not a vanity project. His efforts were well received in Montreal, albeit with some envy.

“It has now become one of our major players,” said Montreal contemporary art dealer René Blouin. “Of course, it’s a much lighter vehicle to steer than the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Its financial security gives it a more daring position. He doesn’t have to rely on multiple layers of committees to do what he wants. His vision is clear. … It designs and presents high-level shows involving advanced art, and has developed strong community programs … Montreal is very fortunate.

The project was so successful that Phi is now planning a major expansion. It acquired four linked heritage buildings in Old Montreal, the site of an inn and restaurant until 2017, located across from the Bonsecours Market building. Using a rear car park as space for new construction, Phi plans to incorporate the stone buildings dating back to the 18th century into a single centre. On Friday, the foundation announced that Berlin-based architecture firm Kuehn Malvezzi will collaborate with Montreal’s Pelletier de Fontenay on the project – which should bring a much-needed dose of contemporary cultural sophistication to the tourist heart of the old city.

A still from the Heaven’s Gate 6-minute video loop by artist Marco Brambilla.Marco Brambilla/The Phi Foundation

Success breeds success, and politicians often reward private sector achievements with public money: the federal government contributes $13.3 million to the $100 million budget, as does the province of Quebec, rather the surprise of the Darling Foundry, another contemporary art center in Old Montreal. A not-for-profit entirely dependent on grants and fundraising, it has waited 13 years for provincial funds to make much-needed updates to its former industrial building.

Still, Darling founder and director Caroline Andrieux sees Phi as a great partner and neighbor.

“It’s really commendable to invest so much money in art and artists,” she said in French, noting how private funding allows Phi to showcase the highest caliber of artists. international. “There is a very good energy in the organization, positive and generous too. There is a lot of respect between us. »

The new development, slated to open in 2026, will give Greenberg’s project more space – and a clearer focus, as most public programming will be under one roof and dubbed Phi Contemporary, while the Phi Center will remain a studio for technological experimentation. At 58, Greenberg may not be interested in building personal monuments, but she certainly hopes Phi outlives her.


After the pandemic, these so instagrammable moments offered by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama have another feeling. In one of his mirrored infinity rooms currently on display at the Phi Foundation in Montreal, there is a moment when the colorful twinkling lights go out, replacing those multiple views of your smiling self with absolutely nothing: you are alone and invisible in total darkness. Here is the loss of self that Kusama’s seemingly joyful art can offer with its multiplying repetitions: does the viewer feel happily impressed or confused by their own insignificance?

The major retrospective presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2018 explored the roots of his art in the remarkable infinity net paintings from the 1960s – large canvases covered in repeating dot patterns. This, however, is a (and recent) Kusama handkerchief – three ceramic pumpkins, two peepholes, two overflow rooms and some colorful paintings. It’s a concentrated taster of his work, a solid introduction to his deceptively playful practice.

Yayoi Kusama: Dancing Lights that Flew up to the Universe continues at the Phi Foundation of Montreal, 451 Saint-Jean Street, until January 15. Admission is free but reservations are required; August timed tickets will be released at noon, July 15.


The critic’s choice


Video artist Marco Brambilla, an Italian-Canadian based in London, suggested viewers might want to see the VR version of his new work The Gate of Paradise before watching the video. Both are currently playing at the Phi Center in Montreal, but it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: the VR experience is dizzying and overwhelming, but finally – it only lasts six minutes – ecstatic. The video is more transparent and linear. So do you want to understand Brambilla’s point about how we revere the images that Hollywood bombards us with, or do you want to feel the saturation before decoding the iconography?

The Gate of Paradise.Marco Brambilla/The Phi Foundation

Inspired by the seven levels of purgatory, The Gate of Paradise births the viewer into an infinite amniotic space, then leads them through a vertical landscape populated by dinosaurs, primordial jungles and ancient civilizations. It culminates in a giant crystal palace, where it launches an apotheosis of classic Hollywood scenes. A video compilation masterpiece, The Gate of Paradise stacks GIF on GIF – Tom Hulce’s Amadeus gesticulates repeatedly; by Leonardo DiCaprio Gatsby raises a glass; a bird flies around Audrey Hepburn in Funny head. Mount Rushmore stares, and on the soundtrack, a pounding beat builds crescendo in this wicked, multi-layered satire of our image-consuming addiction.

To prove the growing credibility of the genre, the Phi Center also offers a show of four recent interactive virtual reality plays that include several serious documentaries, but The Gate of Paradise is proof enough that virtual reality can be an art form.

Heaven’s Gate is presented at Center Phi, 315, rue Saint-Paul Ouest in Montreal until October 24th.

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