Russia’s Richest Man Is Building a Venice Art Institution to Combat Nationalism
It’s not that Venice lacks private art collections: There are the Punta Della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi, owned by French luxury commodities magnate Francois Pinault, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, all which show in vaunted architectural environs. But next May, the city will lay claim to a new private art institution, housed in an 18th-century palazzo, with a unique ambition for global collaboration.
Moscow’s V-A-C Foundation—owned by Leonid Mikhelson, recently named Russia’s wealthiest man—will open a four-story exhibition space and artist residency at the Palazzo delle Zattere in Dorsoduro during the Venice Biennale vernissage. This will not, however, be an outpost devoted to the display of Russian art. While the Punta della Dogana focuses almost exclusively on the display of Pinault’s collection and the Guggenheim cycles through a relatively static permanent collection, the V-A-C space will be defined by the opportunities it offers for collaborative production of new exhibitions and new work—by artists, curators, and visitors from across the geopolitical divides of the world.
This vision for cultural diplomacy is embedded in the V-A-C’s structure. On a recent site tour of the Palazzo delle Zattere, the foundation’s Italian director, Teresa Iarocci Mavica, speaks of her years in the Moscow art world and her Neapolitan extraction, proof that the foundation’s employees reflect its multicultural agenda. “Being Italian,” she explains, “one of the most important points was to have a Venetian architect.” To that end, the foundation hired local firm APML Architects, whose founder and principal Alessandro Pedron—born and trained in Venice—is overseeing the comprehensive restoration of the palazzo’s historic details and its conversion into an exhibition space and cultural center.
The Venice overhaul is not V-A-C’s only major building project currently underway, but rather part and parcel of an institutional expansion campaign that sees the safekeeping of local architecture as essential to its mission. (The foundation is also working with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to turn a historic Moscow power station into its flagship exhibition and education space, slated to open in 2019.) Venetian architecture, exceptional as is, doesn’t need to be adulterated by contemporary flourishes, holds Mavica. Gesturing to the elaborate ceiling frescoes Pedron uncovered during research into the palazzo’s history, she quips: “This is not the place, in my opinion, to come with these big names just because.”
Such nuanced understanding of local identity was a decisive feature in V-A-C’s bid to secure its first permanent space in Venice. The foundation has been organizing annual exhibitions there since 2010, and has contributed funding to many of the art and architecture Biennales since. When the palazzo—which is owned by the Venetian municipality and is being restored and administered by the V-A-C under a long-term lease—was announced as the subject of a competition tender in 2012, Mavica and Mikhelson jumped at the possibility of opening a cultural anchor in what they consider to be one of the geographic centers of the contemporary art world. “We were the only nonprofit organization [that entered]—all the other participants were hotels,” she reflects. They won, she says, because “we didn’t want to make money, we wanted to spend money to provide international culture in Venice.”
At present, the Palazzo delle Zattere is very much a construction site—workers toil to remove evidence that the building was ever home to cubicles. (The palazzo was divided into generic office space during the 1970s, and remained as such until its closure prior to the tender.) Their labors are informed by Pedron’s comprehensive historical studies, an assembly of upwards of 400 pages of material on the building’s original condition, and alterations made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The goal is to repair and restore as much of the palazzo’s original character as possible, while simultaneously creating the kind of white-cube gallery spaces conducive to the display of contemporary art.
The workers’ efforts extend from the salvaging and reinstalling of the original monumental wood doors in the entry vestibule to the meticulous study of layers of wall paint to determine when each coat was applied and which should be uncovered—and occasionally include butting heads with the city’s notoriously conservative preservation authority. If Mavica, Pedron, and Mikhelson have their way, the Palazzo delle Zattere will include a bookstore, restaurant, and garden on the ground floor and expansive exhibition spaces on the second and third floors. V-A-C offices, a lecture hall, and five apartments and studio spaces for artist residencies are planned for the fourth floor.
Inaugural programming, though still under development, includes an exhibition jointly organized by V-A-C curator Ekaterina Chuchalina and Matthew Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago. The show will celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution—from, as Mavica notes, a distinctly global perspective. “We wanted to do it with an American point of view,” she says of the show, which come May will kick off this platform for cross-cultural dialogue, “together with the other side of the moon.”