In 2018 Palermo was Italian Capital of Culture and the city also hosted Manifesta12. Founded in 1993 by the Dutch art historian Hedwig Fijen, the nomadic European biennial came to Sicily with “The Planetary Garden, Cultivating Coexistence,” inspired by the botanical metaphor of the landscape architect and philosopher Gilles Clément, who compares the world we live in with a garden that humans must tend. The artistic projects are conceived as a critical response to the most urgent contemporary problems: international mobility and migratory flows.
Manifesta12 has not only been perceived as an art biennial but also as a contribution to urban regeneration. This event was initiated by a small group of investors and patrons, most of whom were non-Sicilian, involved in several widely-noted events. In 2015 the Genoese Massimo Valsecchi bought Palazzo Butera and started the restoration of one of the most beautiful aristocratic palaces in Sicily. At the beginning of 2017 the Turin-based Beatrice Merz inaugurated a collaboration between the Merz Foundation and the Salinas Archaeological Museum. At the end of the same year Marquise Merida and Marquis Annibale Berlingeri bought Giovanni Boldini’s portrait of Franca Florio for over one million euros. The work was made by Boldini in 1924 but on its completion the Florio family had already been stricken by economic difficulties, so the artist sold the portrait in 1927 to Baron Rothschild who took it with him to America. It came to light again in 1995 during a Christie’s auction, when it was bought by Francesco Caltagirone Bellavista for eight hundred thousand euros. For some years the painting was exhibited in Palermo at the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, but after the bankruptcy of the company that owned this establishment it was put up for auction again. To prevent it from leaving Sicily, the Berlingeri bought the portrait, thus saving an iconic work for the city (now exhibited in the private rooms of Palazzo Mazzarino).
Recently the entrepreneur Davide Serra bought the Villa Igiea for 23.2 million and the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes for 12 million euros, two historic hotels in Palermo that represent a triumph of Art Nouveau style. Also of great importance for the renewed sense of energy in the city’s cultural life was its inclusion into the Arab-Norman route among other UNESCO sites, an event which encouraged the creation of very popular pedestrianised zones in the main streets of the historic city centre, the second largest in Europe.
What impact has Manifesta12 had on Palermo? In the short term the results were very positive: the gross economic impact of the biennial doubled in comparison with the previous edition in Zurich. Direct employment was very limited but involved highly qualified staff, while indirect employment, mostly linked to tourism, was considerable, especially since Palermo is a city suffering from chronic unemployment.
The two galleries most involved in the biennial, the Francesco Pantaleone Gallery and the RizzutoGallery, claim to have registered a good market return through sales and the creation of new contacts with high-profile collectors, attracted by the collateral events organised in both venues. According to these gallerists, it will be more interesting to see what economic returns can be realized in the medium and long term. Although Palermo is still far from being considered part of the international circuit of the art market and although local collecting has yet to develop, interest in contemporary art is growing. The cultural impact of the biennial has certainly contributed to a change in the city’s image, so much so that during 2018 it has constantly appeared in the main national and international newspapers.
However, there has been a perceived inability to create a solid link with the community of local artists who have only made their contribution through sporadic self-financed side events. Manifesta12 dealt with urgent issues in the public debate, but the language of contemporary art is often at risk of being perceived as distant and difficult to access, only able to reach a small social group but not the average viewer. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that the biennial has contributed to an increasing awareness of the importance of the city’s cultural heritage. It can be said that the model of a widespread art exhibition has become the distinctive feature of the city, in the context of local, national and international art events.
In the long term, urban regeneration can only happen if the symbolic sites that the biennial has made accessible remain open, if artists receive greater support from the public administration and if the art itself becomes more accessible to a broader range of people in a multifaceted community. In conclusion, it can be said that in terms of allocating resources, the short-term objectives have been achieved. The challenge in the long term will be for those working in the sector to trigger a profound change in the cultural ecosystem of the city. Any failure to make the most of the visibility and means that Manifesta12 has offered would render futile the great investment made by the municipal administration.