Loss of Pinault collection is “catastrophe” for Paris

A top museum director and a dealer react to the billionaire’s decision to show his contemporary art collection in Venice


Paris. Jérôme Sans, co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, has spoken out against French billionaire François Pinault for abandoning plans to establish a museum for his contemporary art collection on the Ile Seguin in Paris. Mr Pinault, the owner of Christie’s and the fashion house Gucci, has instead decided to display his collection at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mr Sans said: “For a start, nobody really knows what was going into Mr Pinault’s museum. The contents of his collection are unknown to most people. The entire episode was a little like someone saying yes, ‘I’ll marry you’ and then at the last minute leaving the bride at the altar”. He stressed that “this illusion [that Mr Pinault was to open a museum in Paris] has harmed rather then helped the French art world”.

Mr Sans and the French architect Stéphane Maupin won the competition last year to design a walled walkway flanked by galleries that would have covered two thirds of the re-developed Ile Seguin. He insisted that “Mr Pinault’s departure has not jeopardised this project” which he still hopes to build on the island in the Seine.

Mr Sans also revealed that Mr Pinault was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to show his collection in the 12,000 as yet undeveloped square metres of the Palais de Tokyo site following his announcement to ditch plans for a museum on Ile Seguin; Mr Pinault rejected this offer.

Mr Pinault was not willing to comment on Mr San’s claims. In a recent article written for Le Monde newspaper, he explained that it was the endless bureaucratic delays that finally persuaded him to abandon the project. He said: “Little by little I have been forced to acknowledge the lack of any vision for the regeneration of the Ile Seguin. My business partners were supposed to develop up to 150,000 square metres of the island to complement the museum. Five years on, no business, no institution, no person has made a firm commitment. How can I be expected to use the talents of a great architect [Tadao Ando] and spend E150 million ($191 million) on a site that would be disfigured for more than a decade by a vast building site?”

“A private project has a different time-scale to a public one. A businessman only has his lifetime to make his dream come true. A local council makes its decisions based on endless committee meetings, which can go on for years... Other cities have welcomed me, and in light of this, I have decided not to give up. I no longer have the patience to persevere with the plan to endow France with the museum conceived by Ando, and I renounce this great project with immense sadness.”

Mr Pinault’s withdrawal has jeopardised plans for a hub of commercial galleries, most of them Parisian, called ISA 2008, that was to be located opposite the new contemporary art museum. Participating galleries included Galerie Dominique Fiat and Galerie Marian Goodman. Ms Fiat, head of the ISA 2008 scheme, said that “without the driving force of Mr Pinault’s museum, we’ve abandoned the idea. His decision is catastrophic”.

Mr Pinault’s new plan to display his contemporary collection in part of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, is considerably less expensive than the Ile Seguin project. The E29 million ($35 million) he paid for an 80% share in the Palazzo Grassi pales in comparison with the E150 million ($191 million) he set aside for his museum on the Ile Seguin.

Mr Pinault may also have been swayed by the fact that his personal holding company Artemis faces a potentially heavy fine in the Executive Life Affair. Mr Pinault was acquitted of all charges related to his takeover of Executive Life but Artemis was found guilty on one count. Around 15 July, the civil court in California will fix the level of the fine which could cost Artemis hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another advantage of the Venetian scheme is that Mr Pinault will avoid paying import tax if he keeps his works outside of the EU and only displays them on a temporary basis at the Palazzo Grassi. Most of his works are reportedly stored outside Europe though the exact location is unknown.

The Art Newspaper understands that only a portion of Mr Pinault’s holdings—including works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Martial Raysse, Maurizio Cattelan and Mario Merz among others—will go on rotating display in the small theatre next to the palazzo, which is scheduled to open in 2008 following refurbishment.

Some of his works may be circulated around a rumoured network of sites devoted to art and culture to be established by Mr Pinault, with Berlin cited as a possible location.

In spite of Mr Pinault’s international ambitions, French regional museums are falling over themselves to woo the billionaire. Christian Favier, president of Val-de-Marne council, wrote to Mr Pinault asking him to consider housing part of his collection in the region’s new contemporary art museum scheduled to open in November in Vitry-sur-Seine. Mr Pinault’s ambiguous response, published in Le Monde, said : “I have taken the decision to commit myself exclusively to Venice but following the launch of my programme for the Palazzo Grassi, I have set about examining the options in France for a network of venues for art and culture”.

The mayor of Angers, Jean-Claude Antonini, has reportedly told Mr Pinault that he has chosen a site for a building on the Capucins plain in north west France that could accommodate the financier’s collection. Lille is another French city apparently eager to show Mr Pinault’s art.