François Pinault

Pinault trounces Guggenheim in battle to control Customs House

The French billionaire has been awarded a 30-year lease on the historic site


The billionaire owner of Christie’s, François Pinault, is to open a new contemporary art museum in Venice, in the city’s historic Customs House (Punta della Dogana). Mr Pinault has beaten the Guggenheim Foundation to the site, which has had its eye on the location since 1989.

Both the Guggenheim and Mr Pinault already run museums in Venice and both put forward proposals to turn the Punta della Dogana into a museum of modern and contemporary art. These bids have been assessed twice, first by an independent committee which failed to choose between them when it delivered its findings in January and, most recently, by a panel chaired by city official Enrico Zola.

In early April, this second panel awarded the 30-year lease on the Customs House to Mr Pinault who has asked the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to convert the building into a museum at a cost of $26m. According to Luigi Bassetto, director of cultural patrimony for the City of Venice, the Guggenheim failed to “specify the works which would go on show in the [new] museum”. Mr Pinault listed 141 works that would be part of the Dogana’s permanent collection over the 30-year lease period. The leasehold agreement is expected to be signed this month.

The Guggenheim, which declined to comment, has been in discussions since 1989 with the local authorities to convert the Customs House into its second Venetian museum. These negotiations prompted the city of Venice to acquire the lease of the building from the Italian state.

A spokeswoman for Mr Pinault told The Art Newspaper that “the quality of [his] collection and the strength of the offer had won the competition”. She denied reports that Mr Pinault would now fund the $10m restoration of the Accademia Bridge, which spans the Grand Canal, as a quid pro quo for the backing of Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice, in the ­battle to control the customs house. Mr Cacciari’s office declined to comment.

Speaking to our our sister paper Il Giornale dell’Arte, the art historian Achille Bonito Oliva, who chaired the first independent committee to choose a lease-holder, said that the two bids were equally strong. However, according to Dr Bonito Oliva, Mr Pinault offered to pay not just for the conversion of the Customs House into a museum but also for the restoration of the entire site.

The Guggenheim’s dependence on its New York foundation also worked against their bid according to Dr Bonito Oliva. “There was a concern that Punta della Dogana would not be autonomous,” he said.

When Dr Bonito Oliva’s committee failed to choose a lease-holder, the city council then proposed that Mr Pinault should work with the Guggenheim and that they should occupy the building together. However, Jean Jacques-Aillagon, Mr Pinault’s artistic director and former French culture minister, refused to collaborate with the Guggenheim.

Mr Pinault hopes to open his new museum in time for the 2009 Venice Biennale. According to Mr Aillagon: “The Punta della Dogana will host a contemporary art centre that will present a permanent display drawn from the Pinault Collection, while Palazzo Grassi will continue to present temporary shows.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 180 May 2007