Billionaire collector Nicolas Berggruen takes steps to buy historic Venetian palace and turn it into a cultural thinktank

If the sale goes ahead, La Casa dei Tre Oci will be the Berggruen Institute's space for its European programming with plans to partner with major museums such as Tate and MoMA

La Casa dei Tre Oci on the Giudecca island in Venice Photo: Till Niermann

The Paris-born collector and billionaire Nicolas Berggruen has signed a preliminary agreement to buy a prime piece of Venice real estate—La Casa dei Tre Oci on the Giudecca island. He plans to use the space to host symposia, workshops and exhibitions in partnership with major museums such as London's Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Institute will be looking to sponsor and collaborate with both local and international institutions,” says a spokeswoman for Berggruen.

The current owner of the palace, Fondazione di Venezia, acquired the Tre Oci in 2000 and reopened the building in 2012 post-refurbishment as a gallery for photography exhibitions. Under the agreement Berggruen has signed, the foundation—previously named the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia after the savings bank that funded it—will organise exhibitions at the venue for two years following the signing of a final contract.

Berggruen still plans to open his ambitious Berggruen Institute building, designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, that will rise on a plot of land in the Santa Monica Mountains, close to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. “We’re still in the midst of the environmental phase and geological studies for the city so no date as of yet for groundbreaking,” says his spokeswoman. The Los Angeles-based collector Eli Broad and the former UK prime minister Tony Blair sit on the institute’s governance group.

“While the Berggruen Institute continues to build its principal headquarters in Los Angeles, where it is poised between the American continent and East Asia, we are deeply gratified to take this step forward, together with the Fondazione di Venezia, in establishing a European presence at La Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice at the immemorial Mediterranean nexus of the Silk Road and Europe,” says Berggruen in a statement.

“We talked for a long time and he described the project to me [which involves] turning the Casa dei Tre Oci into the European headquarters of his think tank because the city is a symbol of global challenges,” the president of the Fondazione di Venezia, Michele Bugliesi, told the Corriere del Veneto newspaper.

The price to be paid by Berggruen is undisclosed. But councillor Giovanni Andrea Martini criticised the move, telling the Venezia Today website that “once again profit prevails over common interests. There could have been alternatives [such as ] putting the Tre Oci under new management without selling it.”

The Casa dei Tre Oci, built on the Giudecca in 1913, was the private home and studio of the artist Mario De Maria. During the Venice Biennale, the neo-Gothic property is a popular meeting point for artists and arts professionals.