A VERY ECLECTIC PERSON IN THE WORLD OF ART. Martin Bethenod was the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection until October 1st, 2021. Director of Palazzo Grassi – Punta della Dogana from 2010 to 2020, he previously held positions in the field of culture and contemporary art, notably at the Centre Pompidou, the Délégation aux arts Plastiques at the French Ministry of Culture, the FIAC art fair, the Cultural Committee of the Fondation de France, and Crédac, of which he is president since 2013. He has curated several exhibitions of the Pinault Collection, in Venice and at off-site locations.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Martin Bethenod, how come François Pinault decided to transform the Bourse de Commerce in Paris into a museum home for a large part of his art collection?
The Pinault Collection started out 40 years ago as a project of purchasing and collecting art and it turned itself into a museum project in the early 2000s. It started with the big project to build a large museum with the great Japanese architect Tadao Ando on Seguin Island in Boulogne-Billancourt. For mostly bureaucratic problems it was not possible to build this museum in Paris, and François Pinault then had a visionary idea, to drop the idea of a “flagship” museum, to not be in the typology of the Guggenheim Bilbao or gigantic museums like that, but to create an archipelago of smaller human scale museums in several cities in Europe. It started in 2006 with the opportunity to take over the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and to turn it into a museum of contemporary art. The Palazzo Grassi is a wonderful venue—and Venice is a great platform for international visibility of contemporary art—but it’s not that huge considering contemporary art works are very often very big, and each work needs a lot of space all around to dialogue with for the visual and sensible experience of the visitor.
After the Palazzo Grassi, in 2009 François Pinault opened a second museum in Venice, the Punta della Dogana, restored by Tadao Ando. At the same time a programme of temporary exhibitions started, in collaboration with some of the biggest museums in the world in Germany, in Russia, in France. In 2013, the Teatrino was added, an auditorium next to the Palazzo Grassi also designed by Tadao Ando. So when it came to la Bourse de Commerce, the idea was not to come back to Paris by leaving Venice, but to imagine a new project in Paris. In fact, during almost 10 years, very often, proposals had been made to François Pinault by the Ministry of Culture, by the City of Paris, to consider this or that building. At the end of 2015, François Pinault found the right moment and the right place.
How did he find it?
Anne Hidalgo, then newly elected Mayor of Paris, proposed the possibility of the Bourse de Commerce, in the very centre of Paris. It’s the former commodity exchange where they traded sugar, coffee, corn, since the 19th century.
Was it not in use?
The building was used as offices for the Chamber of Commerce, but it was not well adapted to use as offices. It was in the right place, a beautiful historical building in the heart of Paris, very iconic because of its circular shape. Immediately after the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of 2015, François Pinault felt it was the right moment to make a very strong positive and optimistic gesture towards his city and his country.
“Curved galleries are challenging, but they also give the artworks incredible dynamics.”
Presented in the heart of the Bourse de Commerce at its opening, the installation in the rotunda by Swiss artist Urs Fischer was designed to suit the scale of the space: a “public square” covered with a dome, reaching almost 40 metres in height.
Urs Fischer: Untitled, 2011 (detail). Wax, pigment, wicks, steel © Urs Fischer
Courtesy of the artist and Pinault Collection. Exhibition view August 2021.
Martin Bethenod, you opened at the end of the pandemic lockdowns. Was it possible to work during the Covid 19 period?
We’ve been very strongly impacted by Covid. Our opening should have been in springtime 2020, and in March 2020 the lockdown at the height of the pandemic forced us to postpone all the projects. The end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 was a very complicated period because we didn’t know when it would be possible finally to open. We wanted to be a symbol of the renaissance of cultural possibilities, so when President Emanuel Macron announced on May 2nd that museums would reopen May 22nd we decided to open to the public on the May 22nd at 9 o’clock in the morning.
How does la Bourse de Commerce function as a museum?
Let’s start with the building itself. Of around 10,000 square metres, we divided it into ten different galleries. Some are very big, because contemporary art is often monumental, but also some very much smaller galleries for photographs or more intimate works. We opened all the spaces simultaneously; and we will never close completely because when one gallery is in installation, the others remain opened. This permanent movement is important in the philosophy of the collection.
Does a round building work well for showing works of art?
Curved galleries are challenging, but they also give the artworks incredible dynamics. Each of the spaces of the museums of the Pinault Collection is specific, and never the classic square white cube. In Venice, in the Punta della Dogana, you have low ceilings, bricks, beams, light and windows all around. When the Punta della Dogana project started a lot of people said it was very beautiful but impossible to show art inside. Our credo is that it’s not only possible to show art there, but when you show artworks in such a context you show them in some kind of unforgettable way. This is very important, as a reaction to the standardisation of exhibition spaces. In a white cube you can be anywhere, in a gallery in New York or in a museum in Paris.
Is there both mutual admiration and understanding between the minimalist architect Tadao Ando and François Pinault?
Yes, the radicality, the idea of the minimalist is very present in the Pinault Collection, which started with artworks from the minimal art movement, American minimalist paintings, the sculptures of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin or Carl Andre. Also this idea of Arte Povera that everything that is necessary is here, and everything that is not necessary is not here and doesn’t have to be here. The aesthetic correspondence between the two men is very important. It’s a long term relationship. François Pinault doesn’t speak Japanese and Tadao Ando doesn’t speak French, but they understand each other and have companionship over 20 years, five projects, two cities. When François Pinault decided to open the Bourse de Commerce he didn’t ask who would be the best starchitect of the moment. Not at all. It was just: “Call Tadao Ando!” Their relationship works like this, and François Pinault’s relationship with the art and the artworks and the artists’ works the same way.
“You cannot fix the point of view on contemporary art.”
Martin Bethenod, how many pieces are in the Pinault collection?
More than 10,000. Pieces move from Paris to Venice, from Venice to Paris, and elsewhere, because we never show a ‘permanent collection’. No rooms are dedicated to permanent collections. All the galleries of Venice and Paris are dedicated to works that belong to the collection and to projects with artists that are very strongly related to the collection. But at the same time, we never show anthologies of ‘the masterpieces from the Pinault Collection’, we always show works on the basis of a project. The collection is always shown in a way that I would call “edited”, in a certain context for a certain project. You cannot fix the point of view on contemporary art. This point of view has to be dynamic, never taken for granted, always re-challenged. This idea of dynamics is really important.
Even so, which are the iconic pieces of Pinault?
One is a group of nine huge paintings by Sigmar Polke called Axial Age. Maybe the masterpiece of Polke, it was shown in the biggest nave of the Punta della Dogana for the opening. And then in 2016, when we did the big Polke retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi, we installed the 7 panels in an architectural project in the atrium. Nowadays, they are in the Palais de Tokyo, as the artist Anne Imhof wanted them in her show.
But they belong to the Pinault Collection. Why do you not show them in the Bourse de Commerce?
Because we have already shown them, and they didn’t fit in the current project. They always have to be shown in meaningful projects, and Anne Imhof’s project is one of them.
In this first year of its new life, what are the major things to be visited at the Bourse de Commerce?
The building itself. The architectural creation of Tadao Ando is a masterpiece, as well as a tool to discover Parisian architecture of the 19th century. Then there is the Urs Fischer installation in the Rotunda, a group of sculptures, the biggest is eight metres high. It’s a wax replica of the Giambologna Abduction of a Sabine Woman in Florence. When it was lit on the first day of the exhibition it was perfect, beautiful, finished, vertical. By the last day of the exhibition, everything will have vanished, disappeared.
I would of course mention the ensemble of 30 works about post-colonial and racial issues by David Hammons, the most important African-American artist. He has never been shown in France or Europe, and this is the biggest retrospective of Hammons that you can see. The Pinault Collection also intended to present something different, that the public institutions, the museums, could never present in France.
Do many visitors come?
Yes, they do! Our choice to be a major part of this moment of renaissance and new start of cultural activities after lockdowns has worked. Despite the sanitary regulations, the obligation to pre-book slots, the fact that we can have less visitors than normally, that they have to present the green passdespite all of these problems we are on a base of 3,000 visitors a day. Even if we do not have non-European tourists, it’s a very big success to a mostly French and continental Europe audience. We started a membership scheme, and from May ‘til now, 18,000 people already became members.
In May 2005, François Pinault bought the Palazzo Grassi. The remodeling of the building was assigned to the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The Palazzo reopened in April 2006 and is divided in 40 rooms, providing 5,000 m² of exhibition floor.
Palazzo Grassi, 2011. Photo: ORCH Orsenigo Chemollo. Courtesy Palazzo Grassi Spa
In 2007, François Pinault acquired the Punta della Dogana to transform it into a contemporary art museum paired with the Palazzo Grassi. The building was also assigned to Tadao Ando. The Punta della Dogana reopened after 14 months of renovation.
Punta della Dogana, 2009. Photo: ORCH Orsenigo Chemollo. Courtesy Palazzo Grassi Spa
In 2013, Tadao Ando redesigned the Teatrino into a 225-seat auditorium shown here in 2013 after the works.
Photo: ORCH Orsenigo Chemollo. Courtesy Palazzo Grassi Spa
Immaculate when the Bourse de Commerce opened to the public on the May 22nd at 9 o’clock in the morning, Urs Fischer’s Installation is in a state of dynamic meltdown.
Urs Fischer: Untitled, 2011 (detail). Wax, pigment, wicks, steel. © Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and the Pinault Collection. Exhibition view August 2021.
Urs Fischer: Untitled, 2011 (detail). Wax, pigment, wicks, steel. © Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and the Pinault Collection
Urs Fischer: Untitled, 2011 (detail). Wax, pigment, wicks, steel. © Urs Fischer
Courtesy of the artist and the Pinault Collection
“Sustainable art scenes are not monolithic.”
Martin Bethenod, you were the Director of both the Pinault institutions in Venice for many years, and now Bruno Racine is the new director in Venice. Why is there not one director for the whole system?
Jean-Jacques Aillagon is the CEO of the Pinault Collection. He has the responsibility for Venice, Paris and the collection itself, while Bruno and I are coordinated by Jean-Jacques. Between 2016 and 2020, I was simultaneously director of Venice and the project of Bourse de Commerce until it opened. Any museum, especially a new one, needs someone to be here every day to embody the institution. Three months before the theoretical opening of Bourse de Commerce, I left Venice and Bruno came. It was not reasonable to imagine opening a new museum in Paris without a figure that would be permanently on site.
At the Bourse de Commerce are you going to show only the different pieces of the Pinault Collection and then change them according to the programme? Or are you also going to make major exhibitions of other artists’ works?
Both. The programming in Paris is all about the collection, with two different ways to consider the collection and to work with it. The first is the classical one, that the collection is a group of artworks, and we show these artworks in curated shows with a theme or an idea. But the collection is not only a group of objects, but also a group of relationships with artists, and when we presented Rudolf Stingel at the Palazzo Grassi or when we show at the moment in the Punta della Dogana a major Bruce Nauman exhibition, or when we did Luc Tuymans, or Damien Hirst, the relevant point is not if the works belong to the collection: the strong point is the relationship with the artist.
What is your next big project at the Bourse de Commerce?
A show in February of Charles Ray, a major artist in the collection since more than 20 years who never had an exhibition in France. We will not only show Charles Ray works from the collection, but also loans from European and American museums.
You have this very large work of Urs Fischer here, and I remember the huge Damien Hirst giant in the Palazzo Grassi that many people wanted to go and see. How do you feel about these spectacular pieces?
It would be a big mistake to reduce projects, exhibitions, the collection and the spaces, to spectacular things. In fact, it’s the exception. The most photographed, appreciated and Instagrammed works at the Bourse de Commerce are the biggest and the smallest. The biggest is the Urs Fischer installation. The smallest is a little animated mouse by the English artist Ryan Gander. Charles Ray’s approach to the big Rotunda will be very different to Urs Fischer’s, maybe not looking for monumentality, but disproportion between smaller works and the immensity of the space.
You have had the experience of Venice and now have the experience of Paris, two cities that are probably the most important cultural centres in Europe today. Is there a renaissance in Paris and in Venice?
Yes, Venice is really interesting. It’s several cities united in one city at the same time, a very international platform of points of view. The Biennale has a huge role, but I was struck by the density and the dynamics of the community, of private/public/university institutions. It’s a place where all the different protagonists of the art scene gather.
Is it a sustainable renaissance?
Sustainable art scenes are not monolithic. To be a sustainable and influential art scene – the city or country – has to be at the same time private/public/non-profit/ market/University/critics. It has to have a little bit of all of these. Venice can, and Paris is really very dynamic and it’s fantastic.
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Portrait of Martin Bethenod, October 2020, Photo Maxime Tétard. Courtesy Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection