Q&A With Francis Greenburger, Entrepreneur In Our Midst
By Jamie Larson
Francis Greenburger has led an astonishingly successful, self-made, elite life. Last year he condensed a lifetime of accomplishments and struggles into a co-authored biography called “Risk Game: Self Portrait of an Entrepreneur.” On Saturday, Nov. 4, the longtime/part-time Columbia County resident will read from his book and take questions as part of the Chatham Public Library’s Authors and Artists series. The talk starts at 3:30 p.m.
Locally, Greenburger is known for founding the Omi International Arts Center 25 years ago and more recently for purchasing Love Apple Farm, which he has renovated and created the Love Apple Art Space in the old farmhouse. But that’s only a fraction of the story.
Greenburger is the founder and CEO of Time Equities, Inc., a 50-plus-year-old real estate investment, development, and asset and property management business that holds in its own portfolio approximately 22.61 million square feet of property. He started the business as a teenager and began turning pre-war apartments into occupant-owned co-ops. He also still runs the Sanford J. Greenburger Literary Agency, started by his father.
Additionally, he founded The Francis Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, which works to reform the prison system, decrease incarcerations and improve the justice system’s handling of criminals with mental health issues. This is a personal crusade for the progressive philanthropist; his son, who suffers from mental illness, served prison time without access to the treatment Greenburger feels he and other inmates in the same situation deserve.
The library event is a unique opportunity to hear, in an intimate setting, Greenburger discuss his many-faceted life. In anticipation of the event, RI caught up with Greenburger to talk Columbia County, his book, and his outlook.
Rural Intelligence: What is your history with Columbia County? How did you first come here, and how do you feel about the area?
Francis Greenburger: Although I met her in New York, my girlfriend in 1970, Esther Wanning, had grown up in Germantown. She had friends who had rented a farmhouse on the Esselstein farm in Claverack. We spent a summer visiting them almost every weekend and eventually found a weekend place in Columbiaville. Esther got a job working at Love Apple Farm over the summer, picking apples. Chris and Rande, who owned the farm, became close friends and I recently bought the farm from them when they retired.
I have had a house in Columbia County for almost 50 years. Although I still live in New York City, I consider Columbia County my psychic home — the place where I can feel most secure.
RI: Are there any local restaurants, businesses or organizations that you love or have particularly close relationships with?
FG: Originally it was Kozels on 9H, but now I would say it is Blue Plate in Chatham. However, there are many other places we go both for dinner and lunch, like the Omi Cafe, Love Apple Farm, etc.
RI: Omi has evolved over the years and seems to be focusing more and more on engaging with the public. Was that something you always felt would be a part of Omi or did your view of Omi’s mission grow over time?
An artist’s rendering of 50 West, one of Time Equities’ current construction projects.
FG: I did not have a fixed vision for Omi. It was very much an evolutionary process where we facilitated and encouraged programs and people who came Omi’s way. Although we always had public programs in addition to our professional ones, our public programs have taken on a life of their own. This year I think we will have 28,000 visitors, triple our audience of five years ago.
RI: In the course of your extremely busy life what role does Omi play for you personally? How often do you walk the fields?
FG: My connection is most strongly with the people who attend our international residency programs. Over the years I have created strong friendships with many of our alums and can visit almost any country in the world and find old friends who I made at Omi. I also enjoy our exhibition program and constantly check out new art installations by walking through the fields and checking out what is in the gallery.”
Greenburger with artist Janet Echelman at an Omi event.
RI: Looking back at your life through the lens of writing your book, was there anything that surprised you upon reflection? Was there any experience or time period that you now see from a significantly different perspective than you did at the time?
FG: Well, I think the thing that surprised me was when I realized that some people who read my book and who I was meeting for the first time, knew many more things about my life than what I had told them. That was a bit weird. I think I realized that I am a collector of stories — about myself, people I meet and experiences that I have had. And sharing these stories was natural to me and of potential interest to others.
RI: What do you hope readers take with them after they finish your book?
FG: Since my book and my life touch on many subjects, different readers find different things. Some people who read it work in the same fields and find my business life and success of interest. Others relate to my not-for-profit work in art, education and criminal justice reform. Readers who have had to deal with a variety of challenges identify with those parts of my life — the death of my first son and my first wife, the challenge of having a family member with mental illness, surviving very difficult economic cycles, etc.