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The best video collection in New York was shipped to a Sicilian town with a promise that it would be kept accessible to cinephiles. Here's what really happened to it.
A hilltop town in western Sicily with a recorded population of about 11,000, Salemi was the Sicilian landing place of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the warrior whose Campaign of 1860 ultimately led to the island's absorption into a unified Italy.
But Garibaldi moved on, as did the eyes of the world. Then, in 1968, a massive earthquake, equivalent to a magnitude of 7.0, left much of Salemi's historic center in ruins and an estimated 100,000 Sicilians homeless. On Salemi's hilltop, rubble was left for decades. Most of the surviving townsfolk moved into new buildings at the bottom of the hill.
Then, in 2008, Salemi elected as its mayor Vittorio Sgarbi. An art critic, television personality, and sometime anarchist, Sgarbi had briefly served in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet but was best known as a media personality. "He was very much a self-publicist," says John Agnew, a geography professor at University of California, Los Angeles and an expert on modern Italy. "I remember him mainly from seeing him on TV, getting into shouting matches with his political opponents. He's the kind of guy who would be at home on Fox News."
Once in office in Salemi, Sgarbi invited photographer Oliviero Toscani, who had famously featured AIDS patients and death row inmates in ads for United Colors of Benetton, to serve as Salemi's "alderman of creativity."
Acting on a tip from graphic designer Franca Pauli, a former colleague, Toscani fervently pursued Kim's collection, positioning it as a key element in Sgarbi's plan to revitalize Salemi as a capital of cultural tourism. (As for Pauli, she quickly grasped Salemi's chief advantage: "Space in New York is very expensive. But Salemi, it's an entire town that's empty!")
Team Salemi created a full-color proposal stating its intentions, which Kim posted for his customers to see. The proposal promised that "by the end of January 2009," a new website at kimsvideo.org would "ensure continuity of service to [Kim's] members.
"We hope to maintain a close relationship with the Kim's community," the proposal continued, "both by updating them regularly about the project and by inviting them as honored guests in Salemi. For paid-up Kim's members, access to the collection will always be free of charge. Furthermore, Salemi will provide accommodations to both Kim's members and students who want to have access to the collection, at minimum charge (according to availability and booking in advance)."
The plans also included "a Never-ending Festival—a 24-hour projection of up to 10 films at once for the foreseeable future . . . and, eventually, the conversion of all Kim's VHS films to DVDs to ensure their preservation."
The plans were chronicled in The New York Times in February 2009. "Salemi is the future," Toscani told the Times. "New York is the past. That's why Kim's is coming here."
But was that really the reason? Kim would tell the Times that he'd received 30 proposals from across New York to take the collection off his hands. Who exactly made these proposals has never been made public. Two former Kim's employees say NYU and downtown art school Cooper Union were interested, but both universities refused to take the collection as a whole—they didn't need all 15 rental copies of Shrek, for instance. This was a stipulation on which Kim refused to negotiate.
"As far as I know, Mr. Kim did not get an offer for the entire collection other than Salemi," Michael Ferrari, who worked at Kim's for 14 years and served as head video buyer from 2002 to 2010, told me via e-mail. "I do know he really wanted an institution like NYU to have them."
But "NYU, Columbia, and other institutions only wanted part of the collection, and Mr. Kim wanted to keep it together as a whole. He was pretty adamant to keep everything in one place."
Kim's other prohibitive demand was that the collection remain accessible without interruption. When film and TV producer Rachel Fernandes heard that Kim had made the deal with Salemi, she says: "I thought, 'Oh, my God, this collection can't leave the city. Someone has to step up.'"
She and former store employee Jeff Cashvan submitted a proposal to keep the collection in New York and run it as a co-op. Cashvan and Fernandes proposed moving the collection into local, temporary storage while they raised money from grants and film luminaries.
But Kim wanted to see their video store. "And we said, 'Well, we don't have a storefront yet.' It was a fundraising proposal," Fernandes recalls. "He was like, 'I would rather it stay with my former employee and with the city, but my stipulation is that it has to be immediately transported to a place where it can be on view. Where it is accessible.'"
They'd hoped they could appeal to Kim's sense of community. That angle didn't fly. "He was like, 'Just so you know, the Sicilians are very impressive,'" Fernandes remembers. "Their proposal was like, a color glossy magazine made to appeal to his ego. They said it was going to be the Mr. Kim Museum."
She adds: "To his credit, that's what it looked like. I remember looking at the proposal—that's what the Sicilians had outlined. While it seemed crazy to us that he would ship this collection overseas, at least they had a space."
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