Revealed: The very modern treasure in Venice's coffers

The biennale is back in town and, as contemporary artists flock to Venice, a new gallery has opened in the city's old customs house. Adrian Mourby had a sneak preview

Last time I was in Venice, I was sitting at La Cusina, a restaurant with its terrace right on the Grand Canal – so close, in fact, that you can chat to the gondolieri as they tout for trade.

I asked one about a huge awning opposite. Just about everything from Santa Maria della Salute to the end of the canal had disappeared behind a dull white canvas that obscured the restaurant's deservedly famous view. The man shrugged and muttered something like pinot before blaming the mayor of Venice and that idiota, Silvio Berlusconi, for everything that was wrong with his life. Now, however, I know the truth. Billionaire Francois Pinault has just finished turning Venice's old customs houses into its newest art gallery.

It's not every day that a major new gallery opens in Venice. The city has barely changed since Napoleon filled in some of the canals, adjusted the Piazza San Marco to his liking and closed many of its religious buildings. But yesterday another Frenchman unveiled the city's newest gallery of contemporary art, filled with objects from his own collection. There's a pleasing symmetry in this. Bonaparte stole 20 paintings, 500 manuscripts and the horse-drawn chariot, or quadriga, from Venice. Now Pinault, his countryman, is offering the city his own collection of art for an initial period of 30 years.

The gallery occupies a prime position. It's impossible to miss it as you enter the Grand Canal from the San Marco basin. In April 2007, Pinault, who keeps his own palace, Palazzo Grassi, as a gallery, beat the Guggenheim Foundation to develop a new centre for contemporary art in the old customs house that faces Piazza San Marco. While this end of the canal is dominated by the bulging curves of Santa Maria della Salute – "like some great lady on the threshold of her salon," according to Henry James – the first building that visitors see are her diminutive companion, the low maritime customs house, the Dogana di Mare. In the days when Venice ran the greatest sea-trading empire in the world, it was from here that its imports were controlled.

The Dogana di Mare, as seen today, was rebuilt in the 17th century to a design by Giuseppe Benoni who added a baroque belvedere to the existing series of blunt brick galleries and veneered the whole edifice in marble. On top, he placed a weather vane in the form of a statue of Fortuna on a golden globe. This easternmost point of Dorsoduro, looking out to the monastery island of San Giorgio di Maggiore, has always been a romantic spot and top choice among Venetians for a first kiss, so the gondolieri claim.

For the past 30 years, the customs houses on Punta della Dogana have lain empty, an extraordinary waste of prime heritage. Official impasses at the highest level saved the site from being turned into a hotel or apartment block and, eventually, the obvious solution for this image-conscious city was agreed: an art gallery. After bidding successfully, Pinault's first move was to appoint the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to redesign the interior. Ando is much in demand: in 2005 he reworked the old Palazzo Grassi for Pinault, and his highly original Maritime Museum is being built as part of Abu Dhabi's new cultural district.

Apart from repairing the roof, inserting skylights and glazing the old doors, Ando has done nothing permanent to the wedge-shaped structure. Inside, it still consists of eight brick galleries running from the Giudecca Canal on one side to the Grand Canal on the other. They tail off in width until you get to the actual customs-house point, where there is a café and bookshop.

These galleries now contain paintings, sculptures and installations from Pinault's collection. The exhibition opens through a red glass-bead curtain, which might be part of the building but is, in fact, an exhibit by the Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. After this there's a Rachel Whiteread installation of the space underneath a series of chairs rendered in resin. Upstairs, there's a marble sculpture by Jeff Koons, Bourgeois Bust – Jeff and Ilona; a series of untitled photos by Cindy Sherman; and a reconstruction of the Chapman brothers' display cases of Nazi troops being tortured in the afterlife (the originals were destroyed in the 2004 Momart fire).

But much of the pleasure in this new venue lies in its high semicircular windows. The views from both sets – out to Giudecca or across to San Marco – were not accessible until Tadao Ando inserted the free-standing floor and stairs. This is one gallery where people will come as much to look out as to look within. Ando has been careful to make this mezzanine floor self-supporting so that, in theory, the whole gallery could be returned to its original state after the initial lease to the Pinault Foundation runs out in 2040.

Though not as well-known in Britain, Pinault was named by the magazine Art Review as the most influential person in contemporary art in 2006 and 2007. He not only owns and commissions a lot of art, he also owns such brands as Stella McCartney, Yves St Laurent and Gucci. There's also a football club, a theatre in Paris and a national newspaper in his portfolio.

The new gallery will expand the Pinault Foundation's presence in Venice, but it will also confirm Dorsoduro as the city's art gallery district. Venice has been divided into six areas (sestieri) since the 12th century. Of these, Dorsoduro was traditionally the city's poor relation. While San Marco was home to the Doge, his treasury and his administrators, this west bank of the Grand Canal was a smelly place where boats were built, ships unloaded and fishermen sold their catch.

In 1797, when Napoleon burned the Venetian fleet and destroyed Venice's independence, he closed many of its churches, monasteries and convents. Though the pick of their artwork was taken back to Paris, Bonaparte also gave orders for three religious buildings in Dorsoduro to be combined into an art gallery, known today as Accademia and one of the great art museums of the world. Here is a treasure trove of Venetian painting from the early 14th-century work of Paolo Veneziano to the late 18th-century Venice landscapes of Canaletto.

During the 19th century, the presence of the Accademia did a lot to draw art lovers to Venice. A bohemian British community sprang up around it, with Chiesa San Giorgio in Dorsoduro becoming known as "the English church" because of the Anglo- Saxon aesthetes who lodged nearby.

Then, in the 20th century, another great art gallery arrived, thanks to the eccentric heiress Peggy Guggenheim, niece of Solomon. In 1949, Guggenheim bought the curious squat Palazzo Nonfinito overlooking the Grand Canal. This incomplete single-storey building had been the home of the bizarre Milanese Marchesa Casati, who took walks with her pet cheetahs and had monkeys wandering the grounds during her extravagant parties.

Peggy was a less extreme case. Apart from her huge, bizarre spectacles, she mainly collected art and artists. Two of her husbands, Laurence Vail and Max Ernst, were major figures in 20th-century art, but Peggy also purchased works from Magritte, Picasso, Braque and Miró. In fact, just before the Second World War, she went on a veritable shopping binge, buying up the work of every painter she esteemed. After her death, the Guggenheim Foundation in New York turned the palazzo into a gallery and today it is one of Venice's major attractions. Guggenheim didn't always acquire the best work, but she did ram just about every major 20th-century artist into her collection.

With the Accademia representing Venetian art up until the mid-18th century, and the Guggenheim displaying 20th century art up to Jackson Pollock, there was an obvious omission if Dorsoduro was truly to be the artistic hub of Venice. Punta della Dogana brings the story up to date. Walking east, from the Accademia to the Guggenheim and then on to Punta della Dogana, the visitor will not just take in these three major galleries but also encounter small private art studios, print shops, jewellery stores and clothes boutiques that have sprung up in their shadow.

Passing Santa Maria della Salute, now seeming even more overblown – like a statuesque Margaret Dumont wrong-footed by these anarchic Marx Brothers art galleries – the visitor will come to the understated doors of the Punta della Dogana, beyond which lies the Pinault permanent collection.

By skirting the gallery and walking along the quayside right out to the very furthest point of Dorsoduro, you come to the most up-to-date piece of art currently on view in the city, Boy with Frog by the American sculptor Charles Ray. I have a feeling that my gondolier acquaintance will be among those who do not like it. Certainly, it's a brave decision to put a fibreglass figure of what might best be described as literal boy with a literal frog beneath the baroque statue of Fortuna and in sight of every visitor to Venice, but this is a city that prizes art – and thank goodness it does. Far worse things could have been constructed behind those hoardings.

Exhibits for the 53rd Venice Biennale, which opened last Wednesday, can be seen until 22 November. Artists from 77 countries are vying for the supreme accolade, The Golden Lion. Britain is represented by Steve McQueen's 40-minute film Giardini

Compact Facts

How to get there

Punta della Dogana (00 39 041 523 16 80; palazzograssi.it) is open every day except Tuesdays. Admission €15 (£13). A combined €20 (£17.50) ticket also gives admission to Palazzo Grassi. Adrian Mourby stayed at the Hotel Cipriani (0845 077 2222; hotelcipriani.com), which offers B&B in a double room from €870 (£761) per night. He travelled to Venice with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers St Pancras/Venice Ferrovia return fares from £125.

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