Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Interview with Martin Bethenod, director of Palazzo Grassi, Venice
As the private gallery of the French billionaire collector hosts its first solo show by a living artists, we speak to the director about its future plans

By Cristina Ruiz. Web only
Published online: 14 May 2012

The Palazzo Grassi in Venice, home to the contemporary art collection of the French billionaire François Pinault, has launched a new exhibition programme. The venue is to host a series of solo shows devoted to living artists; first up is the Swiss artist Urs Fischer (until 15 July) who has taken over the building’s grand atrium and first floor with works which span his entire career.

The exhibition, curated by Caroline Bourgeois, includes loans from collectors such as Peter Brant in the US, John Kaldor in Australia and Maja Hoffmann in Switzerland. Four Urs Fischer works belonging to Pinault are included in the show and others are on display on the second floor along with other works from his collection.

The announcement of the new exhibitions follows criticism in Venice that the two venues run by Pinault (following his 2006 purchase of Palazzo Grassi, the luxury goods magnate beat off competition from the Guggenheim Foundation to secure the city’s old Customs House, Punta della Dogana, which was renovated by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened to the public in 2009) were catering only to the international art crowd which descends on the city for the Venice Biennale every two years and that the shows, largely drawn from the Pinault collection, changed infrequently.

We spoke to the Palazzo Grassi director Martin Bethenod about the current and future role of the private gallery.

Does this exhibition signal a shift in direction for Palazzo Grassi?

Martin Bethenod: It’s the first in a new sequence of programming at Palazzo Grassi. After five years in which we’ve set up the institution and established the identity of the collection, now it’s time to open it to other projects which complement the shows of the collection. So we have decided to balance the thematic shows drawn from the Pinault collection with solo shows of artists who are important or linked to the collection. We will host two exhibitions at Palazzo Grassi every year: a thematic one drawn from the collection and one solo show by a living artist. After Urs Fischer, the next one-person show opens at the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile at Punta della Dogana we host a thematic show of the collection every 18 months, so that for every Biennale we have a new installation there.

Will the artists who are shown here always be strongly represented in the Pinault collection?

This is not really the point. An artist needs to be relevant to the collection but I can imagine an artist who is not yet represented being invited to show here. His or her work needs to be able to create a dialogue with the identity of the collection and the personality of our patron.

The relationship between a private collection and foundation and contemporary art is not only about what a collection buys and owns and shows, it’s also very much about the relationship between the institution and contemporary artists. It’s about imagining projects with artists and enabling them to create them. This is a key aspect of what we do and will become increasingly important to the identity of Palazzo Grassi.

Who is the next artist?

I can’t tell you yet. We are working very closely with this artist and also with the one for 2014 because it’s a very big challenge for an artist to show here. Although Urs wanted to use only the first floor of the building we are also working with artists who want to use the entire Palazzo, which is more than 35 rooms, and a show on this scale needs at least two or three years to prepare.

In the past, Palazzo Grassi was known for its historic survey shows like the Etruscans. Is it no longer a place for exhibitions like these?

When these big shows were staged, Palazzo Grassi had no collection, it was a place whose only identity was its capacity to do exceptional shows. This is not the same anymore because today the identity of Palazzo Grassi is linked to a collection of contemporary art.

Venice has also changed a lot and the importance of its contemporary identity has increased tremendously in the last ten years due to the success of the Biennale and the fact that so many foundations and museums have integrated contemporary art into their programming.

When you look at the number of visitors going to museums in Venice, modern and contemporary art feature very prominently. Of course the most visited museum in the city is the Doge’s Palace with more than 1.2 million visitors per year, but after this the most visited places are the Biennale with 400,000, and the Guggenheim and ourselves with 350,000— among the highest numbers to modern and contemporary museums anywhere in Italy.

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