François Pinault

Pinault pulls the plug on planned Paris museum

The French billionaire has ditched plans for a contemporary art museum on the Ile Seguin and has instead bought the Palazzo Grassi in Venice


The French billionaire François Pinault has abandoned plans to build a E150 million ($191 million) contemporary art museum on the Ile Seguin in Paris. Instead, he has decided to make the 18th-century Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which he recently acquired, the home of his collection of some 2,000 modern and contemporary works of art. The move means that Paris loses out on what was being hailed as a French rival to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The planned museum, a 33,000 square-metre building designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, was to have occupied a third of the 70-acre island, three miles downstream from the Eiffel Tower. Renault’s car factory on the site closed in 1992 and was demolished last year.

Mr Pinault, the owner of Christie’s among other things, is blaming the Boulogne-Billancourt local authority, the council responsible for the site, for the delay in building a museum for his foundation.

The full extent of the financier’s collection is not known though he has been selling some works, such as Warhol’s Flowers (1965), at auction in recent years. He will now transfer the rest of his holdings to Palazzo Grassi. Mr Pinault is paying E30 million ($38 million) for an 80% shareholding in the building. The remaining 20% stays with the town council as agreed by the newly elected mayor and council.

Since Mr Pinault first announced his plans for a new museum in Paris in 2000, he has spent E20 million ($26 million) on architect’s fees in the hope that the new building would be open by 2005.

This process was boosted in September 2004 when planning permission was granted and Philippe Vergne of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was appointed director of Mr Pinault’s art foundation. Mr Pinault also signed a sale agreement with Renault which stated that no appeals should stall the planning process.

This was jeopardised in December last year when three environmental pressure groups lodged appeals against development plans for the Ile Seguin. These appeals were rejected in April by a court in Versailles yet this proved to be the final straw for Mr Pinault who pulled out of the deal last month.

Another grievance of Mr Pinault was that the local council, led by Gaullist Jean-Pierre Fourcade, did not come up with any concrete plans to develop the remaining 50 acres unoccupied by the museum on the island.

Mr Fourcade told Le Monde that “I am sorry that France has missed out on this project”. He defended the charge by Mr Pinault that “excessive bureaucracy” caused the delay and said that this was being used by the businessman as an “excuse”.

Mr Fourcade has also reportedly blamed Jean-Jacques Aillagon for blocking the project with red tape when he was French minister of culture from 2002-04. Mr Aillagon was appointed artistic advisor by Venice city council last year which had planned to buy Palazzo Grassi from the car company Fiat. In an interview with our sister paper the Journal des Arts, Mr Aillagon, in his role of adviser to Mr Pinault, said that “it was a question of allowing Mr Pinault quickly to find the means to share his passion for art”.

Mr Aillagon said that Mr Pinault plans to double the exhibition space at the Palazzo Grassi by building a new wing in the theatre next to the palace and that the Venetian institution is expected to be “the first part of a European network of sites devoted to art and culture developed by Mr Pinault”.

Mr Pinault may also have been swayed by the recent ruling in the Executive Life affair, heard in a civil court in California. Mr Pinault was furious at the French government's decision to settle the earlier criminal case out of court for €600 million ($758 million), leaving him and his holding company Artemis to face a potential $1 billion dollar civil lawsuit. Mr Pinault was acquitted of all charges related to his takeover of Executive Life but his personal holding company Artemis was found guilty on one count.

o For a statement by Mr Pinault, see page 32.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Pinault pulls the plug on Paris'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 159 June 2005