A primary interest of Francis Greenburger is OMI, the 180 acre sculpture park and international art center in Columbia County, NY. I live nearby and attend many wonderful events there.
In addition to the visual arts, there is a writers’ residence program, a summer camp for children and a dance residency. Right now I am reading Doris Humphrey’s wonderful book, The Art of Making Dance.
She was one of the most important figures in Modern Dance, and is quite similar to Francis. She too, did things in the way that she saw fit. She channeled her inspiration and understanding and used it to produce great work. She relied on her own understanding to conduct an exploration of the possibilities of dance just as Greenburger uses his understanding of the areas that interested him for his explorations.
She wrote “…hundreds of dances have been made on the basis of recombining well-known steps, but this… is arranging and not creating.”Greenburger’s life story has very little arranging and a lot of creating.
Greenburger starts his autobiography, Risk Game, BenBella Books, 2016, describing a $15,000,000 mud puddle in Lower Manhattan. This real estate project was started in January 2008. The world of finance was supposedly at one of its great moments of creative vitality. Banks were flush. Stocks were flying. Then on September 15 Lehman Brothers filed Chapter 11. Banks were broke. Stocks crashed. The project was shuttered. A sinkhole.
At this point in the story, there is a flashback. A young man or better said, child, is working in the office of Sanford J. Greenberger, his father’s literary agency on 42nd Street near the New York Public Library with the twin lions guarding the entrance.
One of Greenburger’s first business initiatives was getting a five fold increase in a fee paid to his father by the head of one of the most prominent German publishing houses. He writes, “That was in 1962. I was twelve years old.”
He goes on to say that rather than school he preferred to spend his days at the agency keeping the books and his nights at billiards. While no proof is offered, subsequent events lead me to suspect that this is all true. The life of Francis Greenburger becomes more and more fantastic as it progresses.
Flash forward a few years and he is exporting books, and goes on sublet office space. He keeps a small office for himself and moves into a 7,500 square foot location that he divides and rents to tenants including a locksmith and a psychiatrist who worked with methadone. Soon he is buying buildings in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
He is off and running as a real estate entrepreneur which brings us back to the $15,000,000 mud puddle in Lower Manhattan. He finishes that project along with many of the most creative real estate ventures in the United States. Previously he has survived the oil crisis of 1973, Black Monday of October 1987, the subsequent ungluing of the banking system and the Great Recession of 2008. Through all of this, he assembles billions in real estate assets.
While all of these accomplishments may have been enough to fill up the lifetime of most people, Francis was not satisfied. Francis created OMI, the art center mentioned above, as well as The Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice. He also got involved in local and national politics.
His story includes wives and children and great tragedy and great happiness. All of this makes Risk Game a wonderful book. There are none of the usual self-agrandizing 10 rules for being a leader, organizing for success or lists of awards and commisions served on.
Francis is his own man, and works according to his own vision. Majority of the time, his work goes against the current. Greenburger’s success is greatly due to his own willingness to take carefully calibrated risks and accept responsibility. Business leaders would do well to follow in his footsteps by integrating Greenburger’s broader vision and respect for the arts, the public welfare and social justice.
He was not one of those, as Doris Humphrey wrote, who
“would rather be home in their armchairs, drowsing beside their symmetrical fireplaces.”
Both quotes from The Art of Making Dance, Doris Humphrey, Grove Press, 1959 (pages 46 & 51)