Venice's New Modern Art Museum

Orch Orsenigo Chemello, From Tadao Ando: Venice by Philip Jondidio, Rizzoli 2010

How François Pinault turned a 17th-century landmark into a spectacular showcase for his blue-chip collection—and made Venice a year-round destination for contemporary art.

For more than a year, camera-toting tourists gazing seaward from the Piazza San Marco or bobbing in gondolas at the mouth of the Grand Canal have been snapping pictures of an eight-foot-tall, gleaming-white naked boy. Standing in front of the new Punta della Dogana museum, stomach thrust out like a young Bacchus, he holds aloft a squirmy frog.

The Dogana, the city’s glorious 17th-century customs house, had languished in ruin for ages on the pie-shaped spit of land just across the water from San Marco. Several years ago, local politicians finally roused themselves from their congenital lethargy to recuperate the site. Predictable squabbles and back-door finagling ensued before a plan by billionaire art collector François Pinault in 2007 beat out a competing proposal from the Guggenheim. Pinault had already taken over the Palazzo Grassi, Venice’s longtime venue for blockbuster art shows, previously owned by Gianni Agnelli. Frustrated by years of negotiations with the French state over a museum outside Paris for his collection, Pinault turned instead to Venice. No doubt he figured he could make an even bigger splash in La Serenissima, where, despite the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, a century of Biennales and a storied legacy of multicultural avant-gardism, no heavyweight contemporary art presence existed year-round.

Pinault hired Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect, to turn the Dogana’s nearly 50,000-square-foot rabbit-warren interior into spare, light-filled galleries, keeping the old wood-beam ceiling and exposed brick walls. Curators Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami installed some of Pinault’s glitziest acquisitions, and it was all unveiled just in time for the opening of the 2009 Biennale. Half-moon windows looked onto the moored yachts of Russian oligarchs and movie stars who showed up to christen the space. And out on the plaza in front of the Dogana, the Boy with Frog sculpture, the work of wry California artist Charles Ray, was perfectly positioned like a signpost to announce the museum—and become Venice’s instant Mannekin Pis, or Little Mermaid.

Since then, having promised a steady flow of special exhibitions, Pinault has reversed himself and decided that both the Grassi and the Dogana would display only his collection, changing installations every two years with the Biennale. Critics cried foul, fuming that he had colonized a pair of Venetian landmarks to boost the price of his art. The city’s former left-wing mayor, Massimo Cacciari, was among those who rose to Pinault’s defense, presumably hoping that at least some of what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl dubbed, rightly but a bit nastily, this “violently trendy collection” may yet end up gifted to the city.

Truth be told, tourist-hungry Venice, rather than taking on the laborious and expensive job of building a contemporary art museum from scratch, instead hitched itself to a doge who, it should come as a surprise to no one, also had his own interests in mind. Recently Pinault announced plans for special events and guided tours to keep the museums open and buzzing late at night. A Pinault award for young artists has also been rumored.

Ando’s renovation of the Dogana is itself worth a trip to the city: cool, dark and elegant, with lofty rooms giving postcard views. The initial show, a hodgepodge dubbed for no intelligible reason “Mapping the Studio,” amasses blue-chip works from the precrash decade that are inclined toward Bush-era cynicism, with a premium on concept and refinement. Amid Venice’s Bellinis and Titians, the Dogana serves up another kind of very local cocktail—a chilly mix of excess and irony.

But as such it’s a perfect snapshot of a certain stratosphere of the fin-de-siècle art world, with hits that defined the era, among them huge alchemical abstractions by the late mad genius from Germany, Sigmar Polke; a vast, sculptured World War II revenge fantasy, à la Inglourious Basterds, by the Chapman brothers; his-and-hers X-rated, manga-like superheroes by Takashi Murakami; and Mike Kelley’s colored glass models of Superman’s bygone city of Kandor, glowing like kryptonite.

Ray’s naked boy, unbowed by the aged splendor around him, holds center stage outdoors while dangling his captured frog. He’s clearly Pinault, the new kid in town, declaring his presence, like it or not.

And the frog? Obviously, Venice.

“Mapping the Studio” is on view at the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi through early next year (palazzograssi.it). The book Tadao Ando: Venice, by Philip Jodidio, has just been published by Skira Rizzoli.