In any case, there’s something paradoxical about a contemporary art museum. The longer a collection sits around, the less contemporary it becomes. The French multimillionaire François Pinault took over Palazzo Grassi, the Fiat Group’s flagship exhibition space on the Grand Canal, in 2005 and added the refurbished Dogana, or Customs House (on which he flies his own Breton flag), to his empire last year. He uses both spaces primarily to showcase his own collection of post-modern art. Some pieces on display at Palazzo Grassi go back nearly 50 years.
All of which is not to say that the city does not have a homegrown contemporary art scene, and much of it can be found in areas that have been steeped in art and artists for centuries.
Many of Venice’s commercial art galleries are concentrated in the central San Marco district, in a triangle of streets and squares between Palazzo Grassi, the Fenice Opera House and Palazzo Fortuny. There’s a cluster of galleries around the Fenice and another in and around the tiny San Samuele area behind Palazzo Grassi.
Veronese had his studio-house on the now gallery-lined Salizzada San Samuele. Casanova was born here, the illegitimate child of an actress and an aristocratic theatrical entrepreneur, and played the violin in the San Samuele theater where his mother performed. Byron lived here with his menagerie of exotic animals and mistresses. (At various points in its history, San Samuele was chiefly famous for its prostitutes.)
Fiat’s acquisition of Palazzo Grassi and the nearly 20-year run of blockbuster exhibitions it held there brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to San Samuele and encouraged the blossoming of the neighborhood’s cosmopolitan gallery scene. This was also a period when Venice’s stores were closing as the population declined and children became reluctant to follow their parents into family businesses. The spaces left vacant attracted a new generation of aspiring gallerists.
The galleries are small, and some represent only one or a limited range of artists. This is partly due to the economic squeeze: galleries fall back on reliable sellers to pay the rent rather than taking risks by showing untried artists. Italy’s arcane, restrictive licensing laws are another factor: it is easier to open an “artisanal” outlet authorized to display only one type of product, which, when applied to art, means the work of a single artist.
While the opening of a Palazzo Grassi show during the Fiat days was an event, as any of the San Samuele galleries will tell you now, Mr. Pinault has so far failed to create the same buzz. The number of visitors appears to have dwindled to a trickle — hardly surprisingly given the present show has been going on there since the last Visual Arts Biennale in 2009 and will remain in place until April, when it will have run for nearly two years. How edgy is that?
This lapse has spurred the galleries of the triangle to initiatives of their own. Fifteen of them put on “Three Days in September,” a jamboree to coincide with the opening of the Architectural Biennale and the Venice Film Festival, with late-night openings and drinks parties.
And Palazzo Fortuny, at another corner of the triangle, has become ever more lively. Shows and featured artists change frequently. At the moment there are seven simultaneous temporary exhibitions (continuing until Jan. 9) across its four floors.
The palazzo itself was once the working space of an artist. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo arrived in Venice from Granada in 1899, four years after the first Venice Biennale, and took a studio in the attic of the 15th-century building that now bears his name. Painter, engraver, sculptor, photographer, fabric-maker, fashion and theater designer, inventor of a theatrical lighting system and stylish domestic lamps, he gradually took over the rest of the palazzo, floor by floor, to accommodate his pursuits.
At the time of his death in 1949, it was Fortuny’s hope that Palazzo Fortuny would become a Spanish cultural center, but his homeland refused the legacy and, when his widow, Henriette, died in 1956, the palazzo and its contents were left to Venice’s municipality.