A new arts center aims to put Sicily back on the world art map

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

Palermo is a tourist destination that offers typically Sicilian food and architecture, but is also home to a vibrant migrant community and a growing art scene. For decades, Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has worked to rebrand the former mafia hub as a global and multicultural city. The turning point for Palermo came in 2018 when Orlando decided to ignore Italian government orders to close its ports to rescue boats 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 laid down and crushed by its own weight, so that everything below rises up everything that goes down, elevation 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 turning point for the city, according to Agata Polizzi, chief editor at ZACentrale and a native of Sicily. “Manifesta 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 professionals and we have artists.” The city decided to capitalize on this energy by building a cultural district on an abandoned industrial site. Today, Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa is home to more than 20 arts organizations, including ZACentrale.

ZACentrale follows the familiar path formed by the Guggenheim Bilbao: building an abandoned industrial area; foreground engagement with the local community; and generate high-profile commissions that transform a small town into an arts hub. Countless cities have tried to mimic the so-called “Bilbao effect” with varying degrees of success. Of course, Palermo is not a run-down industrial city — it’s a thriving capital city with nearly 1 million inhabitants. But it is also relatively minor compared to the great Italian centers of art such as Rome and Venice. Palermo has only two commercial galleries and a small but tight-knit group of practicing artists.

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

Unlike many other Bilbao clones, ZACentrale also lives up to its promise to prioritize community engagement and promote local artists. His 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 by working with local school groups and members of the public to offer tours. Since its opening, ZACentrale has been visited by more than 8,000 people. On a recent Wednesday morning, the center’s space was occupied 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 film Merz’s sculptures and talked among themselves about a video work by Italian artist Andreco in which several actors perform a seemingly medieval ritual centered on the rivers of 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 start of a wider engagement with the arts community in Sicily. Shortly after the opening of the show at ZACentrale, the foundation installed a series of works in the Segesta Architecture 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-born Ignazio Mortellaro.

Although ZACentrale has managed to leave a significant footprint in the city, the project is still an experiment. The center currently has a three-year agreement with the city that expires in 2024. The city’s mayoral election is also scheduled for June, and Orlando has reached his term limit. Given that the project and the arts district it’s in are a figment of Orlando’s imagination, ZACentrale’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 take a risk on 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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