Meet Clarence Epstein



A conversation with Clarence Epstein can take some surprising turns. One minute you’re talking about 20th century art and the next thing you know the topic is Downton Abbey and upper crust British society. Shelley Pomerance meets the man in charge of urban and cultural affairs at Concordia University to learn more about him, what he likes to read, and the evolving partnership between the university and Blue Metropolis.


Clarence Epstein has a penchant for non-fiction. Not that he minds fiction, he says, but he’s always had a thirst to learn and to know. “I used to leave dictionaries all around the house, and I used to read them. I like to learn words, the history of words, etymology.”


His work doesn’t leave him much time to read, except during holidays. As the senior director of urban and cultural affairs at Concordia University, his job encompasses cultural property management, urban planning, architectural heritage, public art, and museums and festival relations. Multi-faceted, to say the least.


Epstein’s background is in art history, architectural history and architecture. (He has a degree in each field). A Montrealer born and bred, he spent the better part of the 1990s in Britain, completing his studies London and Edinburgh, and working at a major auction house. He’s also the author of a book on church architecture in Montreal, Montreal, City of Spires (2012).


For a number of years, Concordia has had an arm’s length relationship with several festivals, including Blue Met. But now, according to Epstein, there’s a definite interest in the university’s academics becoming more involved in programming the content of select festivals, and in developing a more formal, long-term association with them.


He sees the university as a cultural engine, as a conduit between its scholars and the community. “In truth, universities generate as much cultural product as just about any other institution in their community, and I would argue, probably more,” says Epstein. His challenge is to increase people’s awareness of this productivity, and one way to accomplish that is through partnerships, like the one with Blue Met.


The work of non-fiction Epstein is thinking about these days is Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli, by Annie Cohen-Solal, a biography of one of the great art dealers of the 20th century. “The writer goes back almost 300 years to understand Castelli’s Jewish heritage. This book has the same resonance as Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a resonance typical of a lot of European Jewish families, of generations pressured into effacing their roots, yet trying to protect them. If you watch Downton Abbey, you see Lord Sinderby, the character who effaces his Jewish heritage while holding on to it. When an individual like Leo Castelli is sourced hundreds of years earlier in order to understand the kind of character that made him what he was, you suddenly realize that there is this imprint on you that you don’t really pay attention to, that you can’t quite put a finger on, but you know it makes you what you are. For me that was a revelatory moment.”


This year, Concordia University is supporting a number of Blue Met initiatives, including the Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize, which highlights innovative work by Indigenous novelists, playwrights and poets from across Canada, and aims to increase national and international exposure to their writing.



In addition, Concordia’s Mobile Media Lab and Blue Met are both involved in Performigrations, an international project that explores the intersection of public cultural performance, collaborative art-making, and academic research on mobilities.



Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli, by Annie Cohen-Solal  123123
The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel  14232
And the dictionary!