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An Interview with Phil Grabsky About his “EXHIBITION ON SCREEN”™ Project

By Joseph R. Phelan*

InTowner: Why do you make art films?

Grabsky: I love making films, and have been making films for TV and cinema for over 30 years. Many of those have been films about art in one way or another because the stories are so fantastic, the visuals obviously so powerful and, importantly, there is a value to making films like this. Too many filmmakers choose their subjects based on commercial possibility — I’m driven, however, by a desire to share examples of what we, as humans, are capable of at our best. Plus we’re good at it and have created something unique with EXHIBITION ON SCREEN. We have welcomed over a million viewers to cinemas in over 55 [countries and] territories. And they are all my new friends!

InTowner: How did you get the idea for the series EXHIBITION ON SCREEN?

Grabsky: I had been making art documentaries for television channels for some years before EXHIBITION ON SCREEN. We grew to become the world’s leading independent producer of art films for TV. But new technologies quickly created a real demand by cinema-going audiences for documentaries, including cultural films. That had meant opera, ballet and theater but I saw the opportunity for art. We want people to go to their local or national galleries but we can offer something really special in the cinema –- a landmark exhibition that you may have missed, behind-the-scenes access that you won’t get, and a full cinematic biography of an artist or artistic period. The idea came to me in 2009 and our first film was in 2011 with Leonardo Live. For that first film we had to shoot live from the National Gallery in London as the cinema chain in the UK which had agreed to show the film thought “live” was the key to success. The whole “live” process was a horror to be honest, but we managed. The film was a great sell-out success and everyone immediately agreed it wasn’t the “live” element that mattered; it was the access to the art and the stories behind it.

InTowner: How do you pick the exhibitions each year for the programs?

Grabsky: We’ve made many, many films now – each one about a fantastically interesting artist or artistic period or indeed institution. I love finding about both those artists I know well and those I know less well. We look a long way ahead to see what exhibitions are coming -– worldwide –- plus galleries now call us to tell us what they are planning, and we make a choice. Each season we release 5 films. And each film is so full of fresh, revealing, gorgeous material that I never for a second get bored. Our audiences around the world also play a role -– they email us or contact us through our Facebook & other social media sites and give us ideas of who they’d like to see featured too.

InTowner: How difficult is it to work with museums?

Grabsky: We have spent 20 years building relationships with galleries and that trust is extremely important. Galleries simply can’t let filmmakers in who might not respect the art properly or who don’t do their research properly. They know that we will look carefully at what the curators are planning for an exhibition and they know we know how to work around their tight and stressful schedules. Obviously museums have very specific visions that they hope to curate through their exhibitions. We work closely with them in all sorts of ways to ensure our film in no way distracts from their show but, rather, is a wonderful addition. Personally, I love working with all these international galleries and museums because they are not only full of the most wonderful art but also full of the most wonderful people who love to talk about art and demonstrate their passion for art.

InTowner: How has your work changed over time?

Grabsky: There has been a huge change in recent years. The extraordinary proliferation of TV channels changed most major broadcasters for the worse, and put even more pressure on the very areas I loved –- classical music, art, properly researched history and social films. At the same time, however, the digital revolution opened up cinema, and that has been revolutionary. In the old days of 35mm or 16mm film distribution, there was no way our films could have been seen in South Africa, Chile, Azerbaijan, Korea and so on. Now, thanks to digital, in almost 60 countries our films are seen in wonderful HD quality that frankly is as good as it ever needs to be. We are all extremely fortunate.

InTowner: What kind art do you most identify with?

Grabsky: I love art of all types. I certainly have a passion for revisiting the ‘great artists whose names sometimes have become so familiar that we think we know more about them than we do –- or, as often happens, a weak or incorrect fiction film has been released that has perverted people’s understanding. I also make films about composers. I loved Amadeus but that isn’t an accurate portrayal of Mozart as I discovered over a three-year period making a film about him. The same is often true about artists. Our film about Monet brought so much new and vital insight to an artist that many thought they knew so well.

InTowner: What themes do you pursue in your films?

Grabsky: Our audiences wish to be entertained. Cinemas are homes of great stories and we must always remember that the key themes in every single one of our films are the ability to entertain, amaze and inform. Naturally, there are other important themes too — a particular passion of mine is the exploration of what exactly makes certain individuals so talented creatively. That means we have to explore the historical context, the economic context, the parents, the family, the friends -– it’s always a wonderful and complex detective story. Why Claude Monet and why then? Why Antonio Canaletto and why then? People are naturally intelligent but often uninformed, so let’s explore what we may not know: Why is Van Gogh considered a great artist?; Hockney, Vermeer and so on? It’s not enough to show what happened, you have to explore why it happened.

InTowner: What’s your favorite artwork?

Grabsky: I don’t have one favorite artwork, but I’d be quite content to have my living room wall covered with one or two Cezannes, Monets and Boschs — and a wee Michelangelo sculpture by the TV. I am also a big fan of landscape photography, and would happily cover my walls in that too. I plan to make a photography-based EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film in 2019.

InTowner: What jobs have you done other than being a producer and director?

Grabsky: I love filming. I wanted to be a photographer as a child. I adore writing (or co-writing) the script. I don’t edit but I recognize this is where films are won or lost and thus I always work with one or two absolutely fantastic editors. I have really so many full-time jobs though: producer, distributor, writer, director, photographer; the producer role is possibly the most stressful. But all these roles are ones that I have done since I was a teenager. Outside of work, I have plenty to keep me busy too -– not least two children and an active love of competitive middle and long-distance running. I adore running in the gorgeous British countryside. As all artists know, there is no art greater than nature itself.

InTowner: What memorable responses have you had to your films?

Grabsky: We have had many, many wonderful responses to our films. Naturally it was great when our very first film on Leonardo sold out across the UK and did equally well internationally. There were plenty of skeptics who changed their opinion of our idea after just that one film. I love to hear from art groups who watch the films then go for coffee -– one in Newfoundland comes to mind. I love how in a single week we can win an award in Sofia, be lauded in an arts festival in Beirut, be sold out in Cape Town and so on. But the one moment that always comes to mind when I’m asked this question is a moment when I was watching a series on Netflix called “Narcos” -– about Pablo Escobar and the dreadful drug wars in Colombia some years back. “Narcos” is a wonderful series but brutal at times to watch -– showing humanity’s worst behavior. Bleak and pessimistic. I had just finished an episode and thought I’d check my emails. Up popped one from, of all places, Medellín where a cinema had just shown an EXHIBITION ON SCREEN to a packed audience who had loved it. Maybe there is hope for us after all!

InTowner: What research do you do?

Grabsky: In the first instance, I and my team work tirelessly to keep updated on upcoming exhibitions which could be suitable for an EXHIBITION ON SCREEN. When the exhibitions are chosen, there is a lot of communication with the museum -– both by phone and in person. Once the film is underway, then the proper research begins. This is the area that, in my opinion at least, has seen a decline since I started making films. I think it is absolutely essential to know your subject and know not just what the overall story is but what are the sub-texts too? It is unquestionable that sometimes too much fuss is made of 3D or 4K or whatever -– none of that will cover a poorly conceived and executed film. It is not enough to just show the paintings on the big screen. Our audiences are smart and want much more than that. Plus, there is so much choice these days that we have to stand out as the film to see that particular day or week. The absolute first points-of-call are the exhibition’s curator, the paintings themselves and any correspondence from the artist. I love spending time in the library — I just hope, with the easy access to the internet, people won’t forget that nothing beats spending time properly researching in a library. Naturally, we keep checking our facts right up until the last day of production. You’d be amazed how much variety this is with the names and dates of paintings, for example.

InTowner: Name three artists you’d like to make films about.

Grabsky: The artists I’d like to make films about, we are, or we will make, keep your eyes on for more information (or indeed to buy/download past films).

InTowner: Anything else you’d like to say?

Grabsky: The cinema is the most wonderful place to spend 85 minutes, and to spend it in the company of some of the world’s greatest ever artists and art allied to powerful storytelling, specially commissioned soundtracks, award-winning cinematography makes this a win-win in so many ways. The Guardian newspaper called what we do “a global phenomenon” which is nice to hear, but what is global is our shared love of great art and great stories. We have both. A million tickets sold and on our way to two million. And I think we are still only scratching the surface of our potential audience.

[Note:Canaletto and the Art of Venice” will be shown at the Avalon Theatre on January 21 & 23, 2018 at 10:30 am. His latest film. “Cezanne: Portraits of a Life,” premieres at the National Gallery of Art on March 25, 2018.]

*Joseph R. Phelan is a Washington based author and teacher. He is the founding editor of, the fine art search engine. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved.