Something extraordinary is happening in the deep South of Sicily, an experiment that has become a case study abroad that illustrates how, through contemporary art, not only is the urban regeneration of a small unknown village possible, but also the transformation of a group of ancient courtyards into one of the most interesting cultural and tourist parks in Europe. And if one considers that even the United States is thinking of opening an office of the American cultural embassy in the factory of culture close to the Valley of the Temples, it means that such a model deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. We talked about it with one of the founders
A few weeks ago we requested a meeting with Andrea Bartoli, the “crazy notary” who, together with his wife Florinda, founded in the extreme south of Sicily, in Favara, the FARM Cultural Park, a cultural magnetic pole (a definition we use for of brevity, aware of how reductive it is) that attracts tourists and visitors every day from all over the world.
An appointment granted with little fuss, Andrea invited us to Riesi, in the province of Caltanissetta, where the notary office that still takes up half of his working life is based.
We leave Catania and after an hour and a half driving through the middle of nowhere, we arrive at the correct destination around lunchtime. Andrea, in company with others, greets us in the town square. After a brief handshake and without a moment’s hesitation, he takes us to a modest trattoria in the village where it is immediately obvious he is perfectly at home.
The atmosphere is informal, the menu is simple and only now we understand that those who accompany him are not part of his team, but rather people like us who would like to understand what led a brilliant person like Andrea to give up a wealthy residence in Paris to settle in the barren hinterland of the Sicilian province.
Between a plate of spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, a glass of wine and some sausage and without dwelling too much on his brainchild, Andrea answers the questions that come from the various diners. A couple of his pronouncements are enough to understand where to place him on the philosophical spectrum: Andrea is in no uncertain terms a revolutionary. From his words it is clear that to continually question the status quo – from the cultural point of view, of course, but also political, social and economic – is for him not a goal in itself, but an irrepressible need nurtured with grace and lucidity.
After lunch, he asks us to follow him to his office not far away, where we can talk about FARM in peace.
Needless to say, the office ambience, already evident from the entrance, is a world away from the neoclassical studio that a notary is expected to inhabit. Welcoming us instead are fluorescent colours, curious objects and contemporary works of art hung on the walls among which a giant lambda print by Matteo Basilé stands out.
Well, Andrea, tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Catania, Sicily, where I lived until I was 18 when I moved to Cagliari, Sardinia, to study law and where I joined my brother who was already a practicing professional. Cagliari was decisive for me because it was the moment when I immersed myself totally in the art world. My brother is a collector who helped me to discover my passion for art and to take my first steps in the contemporary art world. After receiving my degree, I wanted to realise a desire that I had had for a long time – to work as a tennis instructor in the tourist villages. This experience, which I still consider enormously formative, I believe ignited in me the desire to transform the family farm into a place of conviviality.
Exactly, because at the beginning FARM was not located in Favara.
That’s true – the first concept of a receptive structure that could host artists and be also a place of cultural experimentation originated in Butera, in a farmhouse from the ‘700s located in the countryside of the province of Caltanissetta.
And then I met my wife, Florinda, with whom I embarked on a series of experiences abroad; first London then Paris, and alongside her I visited and immersed myself in all the contemporary cultural havens. A non-academic schooling certainly, but one which would form the basis of what we would develope later.
FARM is therefore the fruit of a shared idea among the two of you. How was this idea born?
It stems from our choice to return to live in Sicily having first vowed never to resort to the widespread national tendency to moan and complain and also agreeing to a pact that we would never reconsider this decision. We wanted to somehow share our experience and put it to good use to improve Favara, the town where we decided to set up.
Because for some reason that is not completely clear to us, we could not imagine another place to start doing what we did. It must also be said that at that time the historic centre of the town was in a state of total abandonment and, therefore, the cost of the buildings we wanted to redevelop was ridiculously cheap.
Today, walking through the centre you have the sense of a town that would no longer wish to return to the past – just consider that until not long ago, the people who live in Agrigento would not have come to Favara even if they had been paid!
Slowly FARM has transformed the face of the town; from a place from which to escape, to one which now lures energy and talent. After almost eight years of activity, a study on the economic impact of the cultural centre on the town reveals that an investment of over 20 million has turned Favara into a tourist destination for over 120 thousand visitors a year.
It has not always been easy…
Not at all, at first they considered us “aliens”, there was distrust, both from the population and from the local administration.
And how did you overcome this resistance?
It might seem naive, but at the base of everything there is belief in the future, in the fact that things can improve – there is the enthusiasm and the determination to face the challenge. We also had a bit of good luck, which always helps.
What is this challenge?
To prove that with art and culture “one can” – all is possible.
It is usually said that one cannot live on art and culture. What benefits, in concrete terms, has Favara derived from your initiative?
Undoubtedly it is not easy to make a living from culture, especially for those who produce it. But think of the economic impact that FARM is creating in Favara. Two numbers to consider: when we arrived, the available accommodation totalled 6 beds – now there are more than 250. The FARM itself has 150 permanent employees. As you can see, if you want it badly enough, you can live well with culture supporting many people. Above all, I would like to point out that we have never received public funding, nor won bids or invitations to tender: everything you see at FARM is the result of our work through self-financing and thanks to private company sponsorship from all over the world who believe in our project. We can proudly say it: FARM creates wealth.
And today, how is the coexistence with the local community?
Excellent, but we haven’t changed in order to be accepted by Favara – it is the population who have radically changed the perception and awareness of itself. The citizens have rediscovered the pride of belonging to this territory and are proud to know that all the world speaks well of Favara. They see thousands and thousands of tourists and a city that has radically been transformed. The people, in good faith, recognize that all this was possible thanks to FARM.
You spoke of tourism. Today FARM is widely known throughout the world. According to the famous magazine Purple Travel, FARM is currently the sixth most popular tourist destination for contemporary art lovers. Tell us how a small town previously unknown to the rest of the world has managed to acquire such a reputation. Tell us about FARM.
As I said, at the base there is a clear idea, from which we have never diverged. Everything we do is a function of that idea.
Strategies, agreements, initiatives: everything contributes to the realization of that one goal. We do not stop for a moment, we do not spare ourselves in anything, we just try to infect everyone with the same enthusiasm that moves the many people who come here. Evidently, when they return home, those people become the healthy carriers of that enthusiasm and so help us to spread the idea that a new way of relating to the future is possible.
Then, to be honest, talking about FARM is not easy. Sometimes when we are asked what FARM is, we answer “just a place” because describing it is not easy. The truth is that you must live it, even visiting it is reductive, because FARM sheds its skin continually – it is its characteristic. FARM is a small world that offers culture in all its forms every day; if I have to define it I would say that it is a small People’s Museum, because here we do not have an art collection – what counts is not the value of the exhibited works, but the human quality of the thousands of individuals who pass through Favara every day enriching the life of our small community.
What kind of public attends your initiatives?
Finally, not just the initiated! For sure the wave of international media coverage over time has attracted journalists, experts and scholars of art, but by extension we have received a number of normal tourists never seen before in the streets of the historic centre.
Besides, we do not “make-culture-for-love-of-culture”, rather, through culture we aim to create a new sense of belonging and with the recovery of the entire historic centre we want to turn Favara into the second most important tourist attraction of the province of Agrigento after the Valley of the Temples. Moreover, today in Favara there are not only FARM and contemporary art installations, but you can find hotels, b & b, restaurants and night clubs, typical shops and lots of other activities.
It goes without saying, therefore, that our target is not elitist, nor exclusive, but a cross-section of people.
However, our projects are not limited to tourism; in 2016 we inaugurated the school of architecture for children, now known all over the world. We are also involved with local organizations in initiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue between different cultures, a necessity which we consider can no longer be postponed. Recently we have been particularly focused on Japanese architecture. We presented our project and we plan to host 250 works by local artists.
The same goes for the United States; we often fly there to present FARM in universities, foundations and wherever we think it is possible to sow the seeds of our vision of the future with the goal of leaving our children a better place in which they can live.
It all sounds fantastic. Might there be a secret for such success?
Perhaps there is: the ability to listen and the use of lots of common sense.