To celebrate the opening of his glamorous new contemporary art museum, French billionaire Francois Pinault threw a grand party along the Grand Canal. Linda Yablonsky reports from inside Pinault's Palazzo. PLUS: The Daily Beast’s Paul Laster reviews Pinault’s collection debut.
Francois Pinault is not just a Frenchman rich enough to own LVMH and Christie's. He must have a direct line to the gods as well. The Titian-pink sunset flattering the international cohort taxiing across the Grand Canal last night for the VIP opening of the Punta della Dogana, the former Maritime Customs House on the Venice lagoon that is now Pinault's semi-private (or is it semi-public?) museum, certainly did seem a gift from heaven. And the hundreds of friends who were his guests, including Marc Jacobs, Bernard-Henri Levy, Naomi Campbell, Larry Gagosian, Lord and Lady Linley, Peter Brant, and former Empress of Iran Farah Dibah, kept coming fast enough to keep the paparazzi in business.
"Isn't this amazing?" said playwright John Guare, attending with his wife, American Academy in Rome guardian angel Adele Chatsfield-Taylor. It wasn't clear if he was talking about the crowd or the exhibition on view inside the soaring 17th-century building. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando has turned it into a veritable cathedral for contemporary art, retaining the vast wooden triple-height ceiling beams of the original structure, adding poured concrete walls made to look like marble, and making sure bridge-like passages between galleries framed the art the way the bridges of Venice do the views across its canals. It's brilliant.
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Through these galleries walked Frederic Mitterand (director of Villa Medici in Rome), designer Stella McCartney, American collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, Italian collector Ennio Brion, Mexican collector Paola Cussi, Princess Marina of Greece and, here and there, a few of the artists in Pinault's vast collection: Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Peter Fischli and Rudolf Stingel. "It's a cross-section of absolutely everybody," observed Manfredi della Ghiradesca, a London-based art consultant who knows them all.
Actually, knowing everyone in the globalized art world today is close to impossible but events like this aren't just good for the spirit. Because they bring together political and social rivals with common interests in art, money, and fashion, they are also good for business, not to mention social status—perhaps the most important measure of success for those whose connections delude them into thinking that they have any real power to affect the world around them. "The trouble is all of these people think they are VIPs," said Alison Gingeras, co-curator (with Francesco Bonami) of Mapping the Studio, the Dogana's inaugural exhibition, half of which is actually at Pinault's other Venetian museum, the Palazzo Grassi, a little way down the canal.
Then again, how important is it to be important? Whose importance matters more than life itself? Pinault's big-ticket purchases of art by the likes of Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke, Maurizio Cattellan, Rachel Whiteread, Mike Kelley, Sherman and Koons—all in the opening show—certainly has benefited artists and dealers, and helped to make new art visible to a wider public. But whatever his actual largesse, he is also locked in a game of one-upmanship with other wealthy collectors who build their own museums, people like Brant and French billionaire Bernard Arnault, who buy the same art at the same time, making it seem more important than it is.
Art can make a difference to the way we see the world. Think of Leonardo, Goya, Picasso, or Warhol. It's far too soon to know if history, which is what collectors such as Pinault want to make even more than money, will judge Koons, Prince, Jake and Dinos Chapman, or even Cy Twombly the same way. Of course, one suspends all such judgment at parties. That's what parties are for—pure pleasure in looking. And Pinault's did that to perfection.
Linda Yablonsky is the U.S. art critic for Bloomberg News and a Scene & Herd columnist for Artforum.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Art in America, and Art + Auction. She is the author of The Story of Junk: A Novel .