The New Arts Center aims to put Sicily back on the map of the art world

PALERMO, Italy — Mario Merz is one of the few artists whose work can fill the 17,000-square-foot hangar occupied by ZACentrale, Palermo’s newest contemporary arts center. For its latest exhibition, the Fondazione Merz-led project has paired several massive installations by the Arte Povera artist with a host of contemporary works that examine climate change and immigration. The focus of the exhibition reflects the promise made by ZACentrale when it opened last October: to develop the city as a regional art center serving Palermo’s distinctive local community.

Palermo is a tourist destination that offers predominantly Sicilian food and architecture, but is also home to a vibrant expat community and a growing art scene. For decades, Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has worked to rebrand the former mafia center as a global and multicultural city. The turning point for Palermo came in 2018, when Orlando made a decision to ignore Italian government orders to close its ports to rescue ships bringing stranded migrants. Instead, Orlando granted these refugees honorary citizenship and opened the city’s social services to them. That same year, Palermo was crowned Italy’s capital of culture and hosted the 12th edition of Manifesta, a major European biennale.

Mario Merz, “Pietra serena deposited and crushed by its own weight so that everything below climbs everything that descends, height and precarious work of pietra serena” (2003), metal structure, pietra serena, fruits, vegetables, 1496.06 x 393.7 x 39.37 inches

These two events were a starting point for the city, according to Agata Polizzi, chief curator at ZACentrale and a native of Sicily. “The manifesto was an opportunity to show the wider art community that Palermo can have a contemporary art scene,” Polizzi said. “We have the right attitude, we have the professionals and we have the artists.” The city decided to take advantage of this energy by building a cultural district in a disused industrial area. Today, Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa is home to more than 20 arts organizations, including ZACentrale.

ZACentrale followed a well-known path formed by the Guggenheim Bilbao: the construction of an unused industrial area; primary engagement with the local community; and generate high-profile commissions that turn a small town into an art center. Countless cities have tried to emulate the so-called “Bilbao effect”, with varying degrees of success. Of course, Palermo is not a dilapidated industrial city – it is a thriving capital of nearly 1 million inhabitants. But it is also relatively marginal compared to major centers of Italian art such as Rome and Venice. Palermo has only two commercial galleries and a small but tight group of practicing artists.

Kostas Varotsos, “Spiral” (1991–98), iron and glass, 393.7 x 70.86 inches

Unlike many other Bilbao clones, ZACentrale has also kept its promise to prioritize community engagement and the promotion of local artists. Its inaugural exhibition featured a host of local artists alongside art world luminaries such as Lawrence Weiner and Alfredo Jaar. Natural order, artificial order, the center’s second exhibition, has a similar mix of local and international artists. It also focuses on the topics of climate change and migration, both of which are pressing issues in Palermo.

ZACentrale has also expanded its community engagement efforts, working with local school groups and members of the public to offer tours. Since opening, ZACentrale has had more than 8,000 people visit its space. On a recent Wednesday morning, the center’s space was taken over by a group of high school students working on an exhibition photography project. In groups of three or four, the students worked together to find angles to capture Merz’s sculptures and talked to each other about a video work by the Italian artist Andreco, in which several actors perform a seemingly medieval ritual of focused on rivers in Rome, Palermo and India.

Ignazio Mortellaro, “Primo punto dell’ariete” (2022), corten steel, brass

Fondazione Merz goes to great lengths to emphasize that ZACentrale is not an outpost of the foundation’s main location in Turin, but the beginning of a wider engagement with the Sicilian arts community. Immediately after the opening of the show at ZACentrale, the foundation installed a series of works in the Segesta architectural park. In addition to two large neon sculptures by Mario Merz, the foundation installed a glass spiral by Greek artist Kostas Varotsos and commissioned a new sculpture and performance by Palermo native Ignazio Mortellaro.

While ZACentrale has managed to make a significant mark on the city, the project is still very much an experiment. The center currently has a three-year agreement with the city, which expires in 2024. The city’s mayoral election is also scheduled for June, and Orlando has reached his term limit. Since the project and the arts district it resides in were both Orlando’s brainchild, ZACentral’s existence under a new mayor is far from certain. Still, Polizzi and Fondazione Merz are hopeful.

“It was very brave of Orlando and Fondazione Merz to risk this project,” Polizzi said. “I hope the next leader will understand the value of this project and continue it.”

Editor’s note: Author travel and accommodation provided by Sutton.

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