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Art rescues dying town

A moody mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin at Favara?s Farm Cultural Park in Sicily, Italy. (File photo, September 1, 2016.)


Favara / DPA

Ten years ago, Favara was a sleepy dormitory town of 30,000 in Italy with a crumbling and rapidly depopulating historic centre surrounded by the messy urban sprawl that is common across Italy.
It has become an unlikely tourist hotspot, thanks to an enterprising local couple whose buzzing contemporary art centre, Farm Cultural Park, has reawakened civic life through irreverent graffiti, playful installations and edgy exhibitions. “Consider that when I was growing up, there was nothing to do here: there was only one pizzeria and no place to have a beer after 8 pm. Now my two daughters say it is the most beautiful place in the world,” 39-year-old Florinda Saieva told dpa in an interview.
Saieva and her husband Andrea Bartoli started Farm Cultural Park in 2010, in the wake of a tragic event: a squatted home in the rundown city centre collapsed, killing two young girls and forcing the local council to knock down other historic, but shaky buildings.
To save at least part of Favara’s heritage, the couple took over a small enclave comprising seven courtyards that had been infamous for drug dealing and street crime and whose only remaining inhabitants were a centenarian priest and four women in their 80s.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Park Cultural Farm is now the centrepiece of Favara’s renaissance, an arts and entertainment hub featuring al fresco dining, open-air film festivals, dance academies and architecture classes for kids, and a boutique bed and breakfast.
“People who come to Favara today find a place that is still outwardly dreary and mundane, but compared to what it was like before, they don’t know how much it has changed,” Saieva said. “We’ve gone from zero to 50,000 tourists per year, and from nine hotel beds to 250.”
The regeneration of an anonymous town that long lived in the shadow of nearby provincial capital Agrigento, home to ancient Greek temples that are among Sicily’s top attractions, earned Favara a mention in Italy’s pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale Architecture fair.
Bartoli, 46, said Paris’ Palais de Tokyo contemporary art centre, Marrakesh’s great Jemaa el-Fnaa square and London’s pre-gentrified Camden Town were the three main inspirations for a place that is not meant “just for art poseurs and snobs.”
On a recent visit to the town near Sicily’s south coast, a 2-euro (2.25-dollar) ticket guaranteed access to three migration-focused shows — two photography exhibitions and an installation by the bass player of an Italian indie rock band — and a display on Farm Cultural Park’s own history.But most visitors could just walk in and admire the street art – such as a moody mural of Vladimir Putin and a section of Japan’s hit pavilion at last year’s Milan EXPO fair – sit down for a drink and meal, or chat with the grannies who still live in the enclave.
The site’s affordability is a blessing for Favara, but a curse for Bartoli and Saieva, who are running the show on a wing and a prayer, while juggling with day jobs. He is a notary, while she is a canon lawyer specialized in Catholic marriage annulment cases.
“Everybody who comes here says how wonderful it is, but assume that somebody else is paying for it,” Bartoli said. In fact, Park Cultural Farm receives no public funding, and relies on the family savings of its founders, as well as donations, and help from volunteers.
Still, the sacrifice is worth it, Saieva insisted. “This is exactly what we had dreamed of, and more,” she said, adding that the family savings would otherwise have probably funded the purchase of a holiday beach home for the family. “There’s always time for that; we’re happy with our choice.”

A corner of Favara?s graffiti-adorned, dilapidated old town centre. The Farm Cultural Park of the street sign is a living art museum in the heart of the town in Sicily, Italy. (File photo, September 2, 2016.)

The Farm Cultural Park founders, Florinda Saieva (left) and Andrea Bartoli (right), in the heart of Favara, Sicily, Italy. (File photo, September 2, 2016.).

The mouth of a graffito embraces a cafe ice-cream stand in the Farm Cultural Park in the heart of Favara, Sicily, Italy. (File photo, September 2, 2016.)

Farm Cultural Park founder Andrea Bartoli (centre) with two of the original inhabitants of the contemporary art hub, both known as "Zia Maria," in the heart of Favara, Sicily, Italy. (File photo, September 2, 2016.).

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