May 2005. The newspaper Le Monde published a commentary by François Pinault: “Je renonce” in capitals, I give up. What was the big collector giving up? The building of a contemporary art museum to house his collection on Seguin Island in Boulogne-Billancourt, just west of Paris. “Administrative obstacles” had got the better of the project, launched in 2000.But François Pinault, being the businessman that he is, would not let the giving up of this project gnaw away at him. Less than a year later, in April 2006, he inaugurated the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. He brought out the big guns for the occasion: the acquisition of a building for €27 million, five months of renovation entrusted to Japanese Tadao Ando for €5 million. In 2007, the Fondation Pinault extended its empire to the Punta della Dogana, having obtained the green light from Venice to invest in and develop the site. This April, the Palazzo Grassi, made over by Pinault, will be ten years old. At the latest Art Media Agency dinner-debate, its director Martin Bethenod retraced “this fine adventure at a frenzied pace”.
It was in 2010 that Martin Bethenod joined the frenzied pace, as chief executive officer and director of the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana. François Pinault obviously knew who he was dealing with. Martin Bethenod was behind the FIAC’s return to the spotlight — he was its General Director from 2004 to 2010 —, but also a critical success thanks to his artistic direction of the Paris Nuits Blanches event in 2010.
So what’s the Bethenod recipe? Solid knowledge of the world of art and its workings. Knowledge that he acquired at the French Ministry of Culture as deputy head editor of Connaissance des Arts, and also at the Centre Pompidou where he was head of the cabinet of Jean Jacques Aillagon (1996 – 1998) before setting up and managing the editorial division of the Centre Pompidou (1998 – 2001).
Tenth birthday of the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana
Birthdays are opportunities to take stock and make assessments. Martin Bethenod is no exception to this rule. He began his speech with some basic facts about the Palazzo. In the space of ten years, more than 1,800 works and 250 artists have been presented at the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana, “far from the star figures to which the Pinault collection is often reduced”. Around 100 works have been commissioned from artists, including Ólafur Eliasson, Tatiana Trouvé or Danh Vo.
All these artists need space. And space the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana certainly offers: two 2,500 m2 spaces as well as other areas such as the Palazzo’s atrium or staircases. But that’s not all. Since 2013, Martin Bethenod has also had access to the Teatrino, a space for conferences, meetings, film projections and concerts. Also renovated by Tadao Ando, this auditorium has produced nearly 160 events for artists, filmmakers, choreographers, intellectuals — Jérome Bel, Georges Didi-Huberman, Philippe Parreno, etc.
Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana disposes of a yearly budget of roughly $ 10 million — about a third of own revenues, the rest fully supported by Pinault Collection. “We have an emphyteutic lease for the Palazzo Grassi and a 30-year concession for the Punta della Dogana. All costs are borne by us: building maintenance and renovation, exhibition production, etc.”
In terms of visitors, the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana has welcomed 2 million visitors in the space of ten years. Tourists, locals — eligible for free entry one day per week and every first weekend of each new exhibition—, but also the cream of the art world. “Venice is the only city where you know that every two years, what we show will be seen by all art professionals. It’s unique in the world.”
Venice, contemporary art and heritage
Unique, just like the city’s mixture of genres, blending contemporary art and traditional heritage. Says Martin Bethenod: “We never just content ourselves with showing contemporary art in Venice. We always need to enter into a dialogue with the city’s enormous heritage.” The institution’s director points out the desire for subtlety that prevails at the Pinault Collection. “Above all, we don’t want to impose anything on the city and its inhabitants.”
However, the development of the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana has not always been smooth sailing. According to Martin Bethenod whose role entails a certain amount of gambling, “bringing contemporary art to a context not specifically dedicated to it means opening the door to misunderstandings”. To what does the director allude in particular? To Boy with Frog, a work by American sculptor Charles Ray, 2.40 metres tall, placed on the Punta della Dogana, at the entrance of the Grand Canal, opposite the Saint Mark’s Basilica. In 2013, the municipality, which wanted to replace it with a pastiche lamppost, refused to renew its authorization and the work had to be removed.
Martin Bethenod is nonetheless confident. “Regarding our relationship with the Venetians, everything shows that the wager of integration is in the process of being won.” He adds, not without a dose of pride: “Today we are the third most visited site in the city behind the Biennale and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.” This shortlist does not include the Doge’s Palace — which is no museum.
Fondation Pinault, artists first!
Martin Bethenod is clear on this topic: “A private body can be an institution and the Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana is an institution.” The director underlines three missions: highlighting the Pinault collection thanks to a dialogue between curators and artists; renewing the way that the Pinault collection is seen; and diffusing knowledge about contemporary art . “Our job is to ensure that the public interest goes beyond some great names with big media coverage. It’s the ‘Koons’ effect: megastars hide other artists.”
To follow his aim, Martin Bethenod reminds one of the principles of Palazzo Grassi-Punta della Dogana. “Artists first,” he insists. The director sets out to include artists in all stages of their exhibitions, from design to hanging. “This can sometimes be tricky, but it’s fundamental”.
Martin Bethenod continues: “The museum world sometimes tends to keep the figure of the artist at a distance. Curators are essential, but it is the artists who must be central to the project. We want to do the opposite.”
From 17 April 2016, the Palazzo Grassi will be presenting a major solo exhibition on German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). Meanwhile, the Punta della Dogana will be holding the exhibition “Accrochage”, designed by Caroline Bourgeois. “This exhibition will only be showing works from the collection that have never been revealed publicly.”
A new adventure in Paris?
The news came out in November 2015: it seems that François Pinault is planning to open another museum in Paris. When the inevitable question is raised, Martin Bethenod gives his ready-prepared and neutral answer: “In brief, if the Palazzo Grassi project came into being so quickly, it’s because it was the meeting of a place without a museum and a museum without a place. Things are different today. We receive many offers — in France and beyond, and until now, no decision has been validated to set up in Paris or elsewhere.” But when it comes to François Pinault, things can happen quickly.