The first days of June 2009 saw a contemporary art logjam in Venice, with the inauguration of the Fondazione Vedova, the opening of the biggest ever contemporary art Biennale and the presentation of the grand new Punta della Dogana gallery.
This last had been touted for months as the most significant of the three. In the event, one of the most exciting Biennali in years stole the limelight, but there's no denying that the return of the huge dogana (customs) building after decades of neglect, wrangling and big-bucks restoration works was an important moment. It's a pity, therefore, that the new gallery contains - as one critic commented wearily - 'endless floors of blue-chip masterpieces. None of this makes any sense.'
In April 2007, a 33-year lease on the huge 17th-century bonded warehouses at the Punta was won by French fashion magnate François Pinault - ranked 39th richest man in the world -to house his collection of 20th- and 21st-century art, reputedly one of the largest anywhere, with over 2,500 pieces. Pinault gave the job of restoring the almost 5,000 square metre space to Japanese architect-superstar Tadao Ando, and wrote out a cheque for €20 million to cover the costs.
Tadao Ando was no stranger to Venetian restoration, having been behind the 2005 makeover of the Palazzo Grassi, Pinault's other gallery. There (seven months) as here (14 months), the rapidity with which he gets things done left Italians bewildered, but not bowed. In his notes for the catalogue of the inaugural show, Mapping the Studio, Ando expressed his 'great respect for this emblematic building' but also let slip some pique that furious protests from residents had stymied his plans to erect two towering concrete columns symbolizing 'dialogue between the history and the future' by the campo della Salute entrance.
It wasn't the only thing that irked the Venetians. For years, the nearby Peggy Guggenheim Collection had been trying to expand into this space, and many felt that this key city icon deserved a helping hand. Yet the wording of the 2006 competition made it almost impossible for anyone but Pinault to win, critics said.
The Pinault Foundation now intends to use Palazzo Grassi for one-off shows, and the Punta to display pieces from the Frenchman's collection. Whatever you make of those pieces - which range from Dan Flavin to Jeff Koons, from Jean Tinguely to Rachel Whiteread - there's no doubt that the new gallery makes this narrow wedge of land dividing the Grand and Giudecca canals into one of the world's greatest concentrations of modern and contemporary art.