PALERMO, Italy — Mario Merz is one of a few artists whose work can fill out the 17,000-square-foot hangar occupied by ZACentrale, Palermo’s newest contemporary arts center. For its most recent exhibition, the Fondazione Merz-run 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 hub while serving Palermo’s distinctive local community.
Palermo is a tourist destination that offers quintessentially Sicilian food and architecture, but it’s also home to a vibrant migrant community and a growing arts 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 the Italian government’s orders to close off its ports to rescue boats bringing in stranded migrants. Instead, Orlando granted honorary citizenship to these refugees and opened up 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 biennial.
These two events were a watershed for the city, according to Agata Polizzi, the head curator at ZACentrale and a native of Sicily. “Manifesta was an opportunity to show the broader can art community that Palermo have a contemporary art scene,” said Polizzi. “We have the right attitude, we have the professionals, and we have the artists.” The city decided to capitalize on this energy by building out a cultural district on a disused industrial site. Today, Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa is home to more than 20 arts organizations, including ZACentrale.
ZACentrale followed a familiar path formed by the Guggenheim Bilbao: build up a disused industrial area; foreground engagement with the local community; and generate high-profile commissions that turn a small city into an arts center. Countless cities have tried to mimic the so-called “Bilbao effect,” with varying degrees of success. Of course, Palermo is not a rundown industrial town — it’s a thriving capital city with nearly 1 million residents. But it’s also relatively marginal compared to major Italian art centers like Rome and Venice. Palermo only has two commercial galleries and a small but tight-knit group of practicing artists.
Unlike many other Bilbao clones, ZACentrale has also kept its promise of foregrounding community engagement and promoting local artists. Its inaugural exhibition featured a host of local artists alongside art world luminaries like Lawrence Weiner and Alfredo Jaar. Ordo naturalis, ordo artificialis, the center’s second exhibition, has a similar mix of local and international artists. It also focuses on topics of climate change and migration, both of which are urgent 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 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 capture Merz’s sculptures and talked with each other about a video work by Italian artist Andreco, in which several actors perform a seemingly medieval focused on rivers in Rome, Palermo, and India.
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 broader engagement with Sicily’s arts community. Shortly after opening the show at ZACentrale, the foundation installed a series of works at the Segesta architectural park. In addition to two large neon sculptures by Mario Merz, the foundation installed a glass spiral by Greek artist Costas Varotsos, and commissioned a new sculpture and performance from 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 elections are also scheduled for June, and Orlando has hit its term limit. Given that the project, and the arts district where it resides, were both Orlando’s brainchildren, ZACentrale’s existence under a new mayor is far from assured. Still, Polizzi and Fondazione Merz are hopeful.
“It was very brave of Orlando and Fondazione Merz to take a risk on this project,” said Polizzi. “It’s my hope that the next leader will understand the value of this project and will keep it going.”
Editor’s Note: The author’s travel and accommodations were provided by Sutton.