Contemporary art is nothing new in Palermo. Artists like Manfredi Beninati and Jenny Saville, along with a bevy of curators and critics, have called the city home for decades because it’s the perfect address for creativity. Founded in the 8th century BC by the Phoenicians, Palermo started out as a trans-Mediterranean outpost, and with the millennia, the small port became a coveted city and a melting pot of cultures. Palermitani will tell you that the city has everything – personality, history, food, landscape and art. And they’re right.
Its amazing history pushes city to forward, especially in art. In 2018, Palermo hosted Manfesta, the art world’s nomadic biennial and 2022 brings the third appointment of Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo BAM, a months-long multi-venue art biennial. From now through January 23, 2023 BAM sprawls across the city with exhibitions, events and artist residencies, but if a trip to Bella Sicilia not on the yet on the agenda, here are five galleries and museums that will make you plan Palermo as your next contemporary art destination.
Quite possibly the most monumental of Palermo’s contemporary art spaces, ZACentrale is 17,000 square feet of contemporary art experience. Occupying an enormous hangar, which was once factory for Studio Ducrot, Europe’s historic furniture designers of the 1900s), ZACentrale brings in artists from around the world. and captivates with cutting-edge exhibitions curated by founder Beatrice Merz and team. From site specific installations to performances and everything in between, artists have free range to create and curate art-minded experiences, interacting with viewers for experiential works of art.
Merz brings decades of experience, innovation, and experimentation and art to Palermo. ZACentrale is the Sicilian outpost of her Torino-based arts center Fondazione Merz, named for her artist-parents Mario and Beatrice Merz. ZACentrale opened its doors in 2021 in Cantieri Culturali, a requalified industrial district in Palermo’s Zisa neighborhood. Neighbors include Palermo’s Fine Arts school, artist workshops, and other cultural organizations.Currently, ZACentrale is hosting Insolitudine, four simultaneous solo exhibitions and part of BAM.
RISO is what known as una chicca, a tiny gem of a museum hidden on the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the oldest roads in Palermo. Palazzo Belmonte Riso itself is decayed beauty, the shell of a Sicilian Baroque palace that was bombed out during World War II. The left over architecture houses a small and charming collection of pieces by artists including Carla Accardi, Jannis Kounellis (a very trippy up-eneded room) Robert Longo and Christian Boltanski. Take a peek outside where you stand in the crater of the bombed out building and next to a piece by Richard Long.
Normally, Via Maqueda is a crowded pedestrian street worth avoiding as the throngs of tourists and tacking food spots are overwhelming and annoying, but in the middle of the chaos is an oasis of art – the 17th century Chiesa della Madonna della Mazza, almost anonymous at No. 391.
Step inside and you’ve entered a tiny church of Sicilian Baroque whose renovation includes a loving white wash and a contemporary surprise. On either side of the main altar are two arched chapels with two mesmerising paintings by Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie.
The Martyrdom of Father Pino Puglisi and The Crucifixion are abstract and yet hyper real, surprising in both style and subject matter. Ghenie’s canvases depict two real life stories: Christian crucifixions carried out in Syria in 2015 and Padre Pino Puglisi, the Catholic priest murdered by the mafia in Palermo in 1993. Puffer jackets, blood and a gun are the details in layers of intensity of colors, figuration and scene.
For full immersion in Palermo’s contemporary art scene, there is no better place than FPAC. Pantaleone himself is Palermo. FPAC, his eponymous gallery is the best outpost to show off the gallerist’s vast knowledge and fathomless modern and contemporary artists.
Engaging shows feature emerging and established artists from Italy and around the world. Pantaleone also curates off-site exhibitions in the city’s most spectacular locations including private palazzi and Project Wall, a monthly outdoor space for “external artists”.
FPAC’s location in the very center of Palermo at Quattro Canti celebrates the revitalized centro storico and is a firm reminder that Palermo isn’t stuck in the past. Charmingly, FPAC does bring a little history as the address is just one door down Pantaleone Arte Sacra, the historic boutique of religious art, devotional sculpture and sacred parchments owned by Pantaleone’s family for over 100 years.
What does a 15th century palace have to do with contemporary art? In the case of Palazzo Abatellis, everything. Sicily’s regional art gallery sets the stage for Palermo’s art vibe – decadent and enigmatic. The former monastery holds the region’s coveted collection of paintings and sculpture from the 12th to the 17th centuries, including the mid-15th century Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death), a floor-to-ceiling fresco whose grimly fantastic imagery calls to mind Picasso’s Guernica.
Architectural buffs will want to take note. Over the centuries, the palazzo has undergone a a few restorations but none more exciting than those of Carlo Scarpa, the mid-20th century Venetian architect whose captivating designs and renovations redefined spaces across Italy. Scarpa’s interventions at Palazzo Abatellis range from the museum’s overall curation, display and hanging, along with Scarpa’s signature architectural touches including a fabulous staircase.
Where to Stay
For the view, there is no better address than Villa Igiea, Rocco Forte Hotel’s seaside oasis in a yesteryear grand hotel. Its 100 rooms and suites in contemporary decor complement the original marbles and carved wood panels of this historic hotel, but what really brings you back in time are the verdant gardens around Florio restaurant and the vintage Igiea Terrazzo Bar.
For city life, Palazzo Planeta in the the tony Libertà neighborhood should be kept a secret. Seven very stylish apartment flats with living room and kitchen give the experience of being Palermitano, even if for a brief moment.