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

In the lobby of the Phi Centre in Old Montreal, the young and the middle-aged, tourists and locals, are lounging on cushions, lending half an eye to a video installation about sexual identities as they relax or chat. Their attention becomes more focused upstairs, where they can experience several VR documentaries on topics as varied as China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and the experience of schizophrenia.

A block north at the centre’s affiliated Phi Foundation, the art gallery vibe is quieter and more reverential, even if the current exhibition is a crowd-pleasing display by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama that includes two of her mirror-lined infinity rooms. Down in the basement, kids are bouncing off oversized soft sculptures in a participatory installation put together by a local collective.

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

The way to my love, 2013, by Yayoi Kusama.Tim Nighswander/The Phi Foundation

“I’ve always loved this city, I have to confess. It’s a little bit punk,” Greenberg said as she explained her vision for an institution that would make contemporary art a seamless part of people’s urban routine.

The foundation, which is free (unlike the centre), may encourage a casual drop-in, but it’s certainly a high-end gallery experience too. It launched in 2007 as DHC/Art (from Diving Horse Creations, Greenberg’s previous theatre company) with a show of work by British multimedia artist Marc Quinn. Since then it has devoted exhibitions to the best and the brightest – leading American artists such as Christian Marclay, Jenny Holzer and Bill Viola – and the biggest too: A 2019 Yoko Ono exhibition included the visual art of John Lennon.

What is unusual about this centre for contemporary art, at least in Canada, is that it is not receiving any public money. Greenberg, who grew up in Ottawa and studied in Montreal and at the École Jacques Lecoq theatre school in Paris, is an heir to the fortunes of the Minto development company. The foundation, celebrating its 15th anniversary but only renamed Phi in 2019, is a non-profit that is financed entirely with private money. There are perhaps only two other current examples of this kind of institution in Canada: Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture and Calgary’s Esker Foundation, also devoted to contemporary art.

The love I met in heaven, 2016, by Yayoi Kusama.The Phi Foundation

“The experiment of opening up this foundation where there wasn’t really a comparable model in North America was a huge risk and this city embraced it from Day 1,” Greenberg said.

Meanwhile, the Phi Centre, which opened 10 years ago, focuses on technology and the visual arts, hence its current emphasis on VR. In theory, it’s a for-profit enterprise that tours some of its programming – Greenberg says it is “getting 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 operates as an incubator for ideas that might have commercial applications.

Greenberg is passionate about the potential of VR, but also buys contemporary art of the kind you hang on the wall: Examples are dotted around the corridors and offices at Phi. Yet, unlike most other big philanthropic gestures in the visual arts in North America, this institution is not built around a wealthy person’s private collection.

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

Phoebe Greenberg, founder and director of Phi Centre and Foundation in their gallery, in the Phi Centre 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 is working as a collaborative institution, not a vanity project. Its efforts have been well received in Montreal, albeit with some envy.

“It has now become one of our major players,” Montreal contemporary art dealer René Blouin said. “Of course, it is a much lighter vehicle to steer than the Musée d’art contemporain or the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Its financial security affords it a more edgy position. It doesn’t have to rely on layers of committees to do anything it wants. Its vision is sharp. … It conceives and presents top level shows involving advanced art, and has developed strong community programs ... Montreal is very lucky.”

The project has been so successful that Phi is now planning a major expansion. It has acquired four connected heritage buildings in Old Montreal, the site of an inn and restaurant until 2017, located across the street from the Bonsecours Market building. Using a parking lot at the back as space for a new build, Phi plans to incorporate the stone buildings dating to the 18th century into a single centre. On Friday, the foundation announced that Berlin architecture firm Kuehn Malvezzi will collaborate with Montreal’s Pelletier de Fontenay for the project – which should bring a much needed dose of contemporary cultural sophistication to the touristy core of the old city.

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

Success breeds success, and politicians often reward private-sector achievement with public money: The federal government is contributing $13.3-million to the $100-million budget as is the province of Quebec, rather to the surprise of the Darling Foundry, another contemporary art centre in Old Montreal. A non-profit reliant entirely on grants and fundraising, it has been waiting 13 years for provincial money to do much-needed updates to its old industrial building.

Still, Darling founder and director Caroline Andrieux sees Phi as an excellent partner and neighbour.

“It’s really commendable to invest so much money in art and artists,” she said in French, remarking on the way private funding permits Phi to present the highest calibre of international artists. “There is a really good energy in the organization, positive and generous too. There’s a lot of respect between us.”

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

After the pandemic, there’s a different feel to those oh-so-Instagrammable moments offered by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. In one of her mirrored infinity rooms now showing at the Phi Foundation in Montreal, there is a point when the colourful 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 it make the viewer feel happily awed or unsettled by their own insignificance?

The major retrospective that showed at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018 explored the roots of her art in the remarkable Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s – large canvases covered in repeating dot patterns. This, however, is pocket-handkerchief (and recent) Kusama – three ceramic pumpkins, two peep boxes, two infinity rooms and some colourful paintings. It’s a concentrated taste of her work, a strong introduction to her deceptively playful practice.

Yayoi Kusama: Dancing Lights that Flew up to the Universe continues at Montreal’s Phi Foundation, 451 Saint-Jean Street, to Jan. 15. Admission is free but reservations are required; timed tickets for August are being released at noon, July 15.

Critic’s pick

Video artist Marco Brambilla, an Italian-Canadian based in London, has suggested that viewers might want to see the VR version of his new work Heaven’s Gate before they watch the video. Both are currently on show at the Phi Centre in Montreal, but it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: The VR experience is vertiginous 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 the way we worship the images with which Hollywood bombards us, or do you want to experience the saturation before you decode the iconography?

Heaven's Gate.Marco Brambilla/The Phi Foundation

Inspired by the seven levels of purgatory, Heaven’s Gate births the viewer in some infinite amniotic space and then leads them up 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 scenes from classic Hollywood. A masterpiece of video compilation, Heaven’s Gate piles GIF upon GIF – Tom Hulce’s Amadeus repeatedly gesticulates; Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby raises a glass; a bird flaps around Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Mount Rushmore looks on stolidly, and on the soundtrack a pounding rhythm rises to a crescendo in this wicked, multi-multilayered satire of our addiction to the consumption of pictures.

To prove the genre’s growing credibility, the Phi Centre is also offering a show of four recent interactive VR pieces that include several serious documentaries, but Heaven’s Gate is ample proof that VR can be an art form.

Heaven’s Gate is showing at the Phi Centre, 315 Saint-Paul Street West in Montreal to Oct. 24.