A room in the Palazzo delle Zattere, site of the V-A-C Foundation
A room in the Palazzo delle Zattere, site of the V-A-C Foundation © Fulvio Orsenigo

Like a storm tide, every two years contemporary art pours into the city of Venice. It fills not just the national pavilions, the Giardini, the Arsenale and beyond, but many of the city’s 200-plus palazzi and scores of churches. Curators working on behalf of nations without permanent pavilions, private foundations and publicly funded contemporary art galleries scramble to find an atmospheric toehold in the city, and scores of empty historic buildings yield site-sensitive displays. The streets surge with collectors, gallerists, curators and curious visitors, filling Venice’s nooks and crannies.

Then, after six months, the contemporary art floods out again. Besides a cluster of commercial galleries in the centre, for years only the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and, more recently, the French luxury commodities magnate François Pinault’s personal museums at the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi have flown the flag for modern and contemporary art during the dry months.

This month, however, a number of institutions will announce a more permanent engagement with the city. This has been driven partly by favourable opportunities to lease important buildings from the city authorities in return for a serious commitment to restore them. The philanthropist Francesca von Habsburg, director of the Vienna-based foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), has taken on the enormous 16th-century Church of San Lorenzo, close to the Arsenale in the Castello district, as a permanent base for year-round programming in exchange for picking up the tab for renovation. Von Habsburg has been seeking a home for the experimental, ecologically focused TBA21 academy and she takes over from Mexico which, in 2012, acquired the building for nine years as a regular base for its Biennale presentation, but after 2013 pulled out of the agreement. The church, suppressed like many others by Napoleon in the early 19th century, has not been accessible for 20 years except for a brief moment in 2013 when Mexican artist Ariel Guzik’s ingenious musical machine, the “Cordiox”, took up temporary occupation.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s V-A-C Foundation, owned by Russia’s wealthiest man, Leonid Mikhelson, will launch its new permanent residence in the Palazzo delle Zattere on the Dorsoduro. V-A-C’s Italian director Teresa Iarocci Mavica explained last year that the foundation won the lease in 2013 because “we didn’t want to make money, we wanted to spend money to provide international culture in Venice”. It will open with the exhibition Space Force Construction (to August 25), a display considering the legacy of the art and architecture of early Soviet Russia, in dialogue with new commissions, organised with the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not only private foundations, however, are keen to contribute to the city’s contemporary art scene. Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, Birmingham’s publicly funded contemporary art gallery, recently announced a fundraising campaign to enable ongoing collaborations between Ikon and the Venice-based not-for-profit agency Nuova Icona centred on the 16th-century Oratorio di San Ludovico.

In May, Ikon Icona opens One Million Years (Reading), an installation in honour of the late Japanese artist On Kawara (to July 30). Volunteers will read from two sets of volumes produced by the artist that list dates one million years into the future and one million years into the past.

Doorway of the Oratorio di San Ludovico, future base for Ikon Icona
Doorway of the Oratorio di San Ludovico, future base for Ikon Icona © Giulio Favotto

Watkins explains, “This was a church designed for speaking. Its acoustics suit the human voice. So the idea appealed of a reading, with this emphasis on the passage of time in a space meant to transcend time.”

He sees it as a consciousness-raising exercise to persuade benefactors to give the building — which was re-discovered by Nuova Icona in 1996, “wrapped in deep oblivion under fabulous, huge cobwebs”, as its website says — a permanent new purpose. The project will not drain funds from the Birmingham gallery, Watkins insists, and will develop a separate programme of exhibitions, artists’ residencies and educational projects serving local as much as international interests. He adds, hopefully, “How nice it would be to stumble across a 21st-century Peggy Guggenheim.”

Venice’s new vim has not been lost on commercial galleries. This month the Paris-based Galerie Alberta Pane opens a new permanent base in Pane’s hometown with a group show called Le Désir (to July 29), featuring works by gallery artists including Gayle Chong Kwan and Marcos Lutyens.

Meanwhile, Victoria Miro, the influential London contemporary art dealer, has chosen to open a Venetian outpost offering a comprehensive year-long programme in Galleria il Capricorno in the San Marco district, the gallery of her long-term friend Bruna Aickelin. Opening on May 10 with a show of works on paper by Chris Ofili entitled Poolside Magic (to July 1), Miro comments, “Being able to extend the opportunity to our artists to respond to and show in a setting as inspirational as Venice has been a key factor in our decision to open the gallery.”

But are there enough potential clients, even enough audience here outside the months of the Biennale?

“Since the late 1990s, Il Capricorno has staged exhibitions by gallery artists including Hernan Bas, Verne Dawson, NS Harsha, Chantal Joffe, Wangechi Mutu and Grayson Perry,” Miro replies. “These exhibitions have been very successful and interest from collectors in Italy and further afield has always been very positive. The art market is truly global and is changing constantly. Saying that, opening a gallery in Venice is all about creating a new context for our artists, so the decision isn’t one that is market-led.”

Photographs: Fulvio Orsenigo; Giulio Favotto

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