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François Pinault

François Pinault poaches leading Paris fair director

Martin Bethenod to head collector’s Venice venues as disquiet grows over stalled exhibition programme

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Following the surprise departure of Monique Veaute as executive director of François Pinault’s Venetian gallery—the Palazzo Grassi—last year, the French billionaire has appointed Martin Bethenod as director. Bethenod is currently the general director of the Fiac fair in Paris, a role he has held since 2004. He told us that he will be working “full time for the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana” apart from his existing commitment to direct the Nuit Blanche festival in Paris on 2 October.

Whether the appointment will subdue the growing tide of criticism in Venice over Pinault’s management of the two historic spaces remains uncertain. Disquiet has been growing since Veaute revealed she was leaving because Pinault, the owner of the luxury goods conglomerate PPR and Christie’s, had decided not to continue with a programme of temporary exhibitions in the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, both of which he secured from Venice city council (The Art Newspaper, January, p5). Bethenod’s skills as a mediator are highlighted in the statement announcing his appointment: “[He] will be a key interlocutor with the city of Venice, and Venetian and Italian institutions,” it says. Bethenod said it was “much too soon” to discuss the future programme but said he would begin “by meeting everyone and listening”.

Pinault’s current plan is to use the two spaces to display works from his personal collection of contemporary art, changing the display every two years to coincide with the Venice Biennale. The latest show, “Mapping the Studio”, which opened last summer across both venues and inaugurated the Punta della Dogana (the former customs house), will continue until June 2011. Palazzo Grassi, which opened in 2006, initially had a programme of exhibitions, including the historical show “Rome and the Barbarians” curated by Jean-Jacques Aillagon at a cost of around €5m. This was supposed to be followed by other historical shows, on the relationship between Christianity and Islam, on the New World, on East-West relations and Africa and Oceania.

Pinault discussed the change of direction some weeks ago with the committee that oversees the Punta della Dogana. It includes Marino Folin, former dean of the Architecture Faculty at Venice University, critics Carlos Basualdo and Angela Vettese, art historian Giuseppe Barbieri and Giandomenico Romanelli, director of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia. The only member not present at the meeting was Achille Bonito Oliva, the official who had to adjudicate between Pinault and the Guggenheim, both of which tendered to run the Punta della Dogana, in 2007.

Pinault acquired his first space when he bought 80% of the 90-year lease on the Palazzo Grassi from Venice city council, via the Casino Municipale di Venezia, in 2005. Then, he undertook to put on regular exhibitions, aside from his own collection, as his predecessor Fiat had done. (The company sold the building to the council following the death of founder Gianni Agnelli in 2003.) Pinault won the contract to lease the dilapidated Punta della Dogana for 30 years in 2007, agreeing to show at least 141 works from his collection and committing around €25m to renovate the building.

Franco Miracco, the former spokesman for Giancarlo Galan—the outgoing president of the regional government of the Veneto—and a supporter of the Guggenheim bid, said: “The truth is that Pinault is the owner of Christie’s. The Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, during the Venice Biennale, are extraordinary showcases for the works in his collection. But these buildings are not auction houses and this is not in the city’s interests.”

Vittorio Sgarbi, the commissioner for the Italian Pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale, is also extremely critical, especially of the city. “Venice lost an opportunity when it decided not to use Palazzo Grassi to house the Terruzzi collection [of 18th-century Venetian paintings belonging to Genoan industrialist Angelo Guido Terruzzi], which was rejected in favour of the Pinault collection. It would have created an extraordinary match with the Museo del Settecento in Ca’ Rezzonico, on the other side of the Grand Canal, supplementing its collection with the works of Canaletto, Bellotto and Tiepolo, and Pinault could have had the space at the Dogana. But everything was given to Pinault,” he said.

However, the outgoing mayor, Massimo Cacciari, described the recent criticisms of Pinault as “insane”. He awarded Pinault honorary citizenship of the city and praised his restorations of both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana.

However, the reason for the curtailing of the programme is probably financial. Palazzo Grassi’s 2009 accounts reveal it lost €1.7m, a considerable improvement on the €3.6m loss of 2008, and the €6m debt of the year before, thanks to the reduction in the exhibition programme. Pinault and the committee of Punta della Dogana now intend to introduce a range of other activities. According to Marino Folin: “Besides the cycle of meetings linked to the display of the collection, there will also be a series of ‘sparring matches’ with personalities from the worlds of art, architecture and philosophy. Starting in September, we would also like to begin organising ‘all-nighters’ in the museums of the city with guided tours.” There are also plans to create a Pinault Award for an emerging artist.