Milenko Matanovic     Building community through art  Part 1    July 30, 2012

This is the second article in the Artists Who Care series.

Milenko             Photo by Hannah Hess

The first and second parts of this article introduce Milenko and his current work, based on material found on his site and a number of online interviews. (Sources given at the end of the article.) The third and fourth parts are an interview.

Sarah’s introduction to this series of articles

I believe that art is so much more than a commodity to hang on walls, and that the artist’s function in this society goes beyond making products to sell. Rather it is vital and transformative, and added to initiatives in other disciplines, can contribute to healing our broken society.  An increasing number of creative people are working as activists in bringing societal change through community building, consciousness raising, and other activities which directly and positively impact individuals and their communities.

I want to highlight some of them here because a lot of this activity is ‘below the radar’, ie not picked up by the media. And all these initiatives together form a surge that is growing, powerful and important.

So I’m happy to be able to devote several posts to the work of Milenko Matanovic. He has been gracious with his time and cooperation for this article and I feel what he has achieved is so worthwhile and important, I’d like to share it as widely as possible. So please feel free to tweet and Facebook copiously!!! There is enormous potential in us as artists and anyone working with creative processes to really make a positive difference. We just need alternative models, and they are out there for sure.

Milenko Matanovic    Building community through art

Recently completed 10 day project, a gathering place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- built in part with debris from a tornado which did a lot of damage to the city last year. Photo by Hannah Hess

Showing walkway with tiles made by volunteers from the community. Photo by Hannah Hess

I first met Milenko Matanovic

during a conference at Findhorn Community where I was living at the time. He was an all-round artist: singing, performing, and lecturing on art as a transformative force in the society.

His book, Lightworks, Explorations in Art, Culture, and Creativity, was published in 1985, and is still highly relevant. It is a collection of interviews with creative people of stature from a number of different backgrounds, including Suzi Gablik, John Todd, Madeleine L ‘Engle, Matthew Fox, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Glass and others. What this diverse group of philosophers, historians, educators, and artists has in common is the conviction that the arts are crucial to cultural change and can provide solutions to the many complex problems facing our world.

I came across Milenko’s work again recently on YouTube in a video where he was speaking about art as a mode of community building, and that led to this article.

Milenko began as a conceptual artist in his home in Slovenia (formerly a republic of Yugoslavia) as a member of the celebrated OHO group. Even as his success as an artist grew, he became increasingly disillusioned with the separation of modern art from everyday concerns.

Walking out of a museum one day where an installation of his work was featured, Milenko experienced a crucial tipping point. He was so struck with the dissonance between the interior of the museum and the world outside that he literally walked away from his career as an artist.

This launched a period of re-evaluation that took him out of the conventional art world for 15 years. At the end of that period, he emerged dedicated to exploring ways to practice his art that would positively impact the world.

In 1986, he started a non-profit organization called Pomegranate Center.


I founded Pomegranate Center to connect community participation with art, education, and the environment because I felt that separating them into exclusive compartments was no longer productive.

By integrating art into the fabric of the community, Pomegranate Center gets people involved in creating gathering places in their neighborhoods.

To get an idea of how Milenko’s projects work and what they look like, see the video mentioned above and the Pomegranate site.

The projects themselves are inspiring and worth devoting an entire article to. But I’ve chosen here to highlight another area of his work, without which none of those projects would have even got off the ground.

This area concerns the question that inevitably comes up in any project involving the creative process, ‘How do you balance the vision with the practical side?’ And more importantly, ‘How do you manage a diverse group in such a way that the strongest idealists and realists don’t get stuck in conflicts and end up sabotaging the whole project?’

Milenko calls this, ‘Managing tensions,’ and agrees that is usually the most challenging part of any project.

continued in Part 2

Milenko Matanovic Building community through art    Part 2

July 29, 2012

Continued from part 1, this is the second article in the Artists Who Care series


Managing Tensions

So, the community has come up with an idea, and Milenko and his team are going to help them to realize it. In the first meeting, some people are excited about all the possibilities and the energy is high as the ideas fly around the room; there is also another group focusing on the practical considerations- the small budget, the planning restrictions, and the short time frame in which a lot has to be accomplished.

In a later phase, during the work on the project, the practical or ‘realist’ group will push to finish regardless of reaching the optimal solution; and the idealists will, ‘want to think forever before they decide to do anything’.

The tension that results from these conflicting approaches feels uncomfortable, and many people want to release it as soon as possible by choosing a quick solution.

Milenko says that the leadership in such situations needs to embody a kind of flexibility that supports both modalities.


‘As a student of creativity, I believe tension is a constant condition, we may temporarily resolve it, only to uncover a new tension.
It is always this dance between doing it fast and doing it thoughtfully; doing it with lots of people and still achieving excellence’.

He speaks about the tools they have developed over the years for dealing constructively with this dynamic. First of all, the normal ground rules of meetings apply; ‘Listen, be respectful, and don’t hog the floor’.

Then, as a facilitator of the community’s vision, he goes further and asks people to consider these questions:

‘Are you willing to change your mind in view of new information someone else brings to the table?
Are you willing to turn your No into a Yes – if you don’t like something, are you willing to discipline yourself to come up with something better?’

When people are invited to participate under those conditions, the group dynamics improve, ‘they are capable of being considerate, creative, imaginative, and accomplishing great things in a short time’. The project moves forward.

Project in progress      photo by Hannah Hess

The operating working philosophy in all these projects is ‘tough on ideas, gentle on people’:

‘Focus on the essence of what we can do together and don’t sweat the details. Let’s trust that the details will emerge from this fertile ground of lots of people who already know what they’re doing.’

I feel that this inherent trust and respect for the participants from the community is communicated from day one, and contributes greatly to the success of the projects.

Milenko sums up the deeper mission of his work this way:

‘ What we’re doing is collectively creating conditions where we can come togetheracross our differences and where we can be our best.’

Perhaps this describes a common journey being made by people in diverse fields who are using their expertise to find positive solutions to social problems.

This is what art can do, and what Milenko and his friends at Pomegranate Center are accomplishing with their community building creative work.

Art heals. This is not just an idealistic, abstract concept. In many communities crime, drug abuse, and violence have replaced the safety of close knit small neighborhoods.

If you then can observe, from close by, the pride people begin to take in their neighborhoods after a project is finished, and how they change from just people living there to involved members of a strong community; then we’re seeing art working effectively as a powerful tool for positive social change.

Sources for this article:  Pomegranate Center site, Grist site article on Milenko ,  and The Seattle Times article on Pomegranate Center by Sonia Krishman.

Interview with Milenko Matanovic Part 1    August 1, 2012

photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again. Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries? Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict. Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

Interview with Milenko Matanovic Part 2   August 1, 2012

This is the fourth post in the series featuring Milenko Matanovic Continued from Interview Part 1

SZ And finally, in your talk about art and community building at PopTech, you mentioned a ‘rumble’. It seemed to be in the context of the conference, but I was fascinated by the concept of something passing through one, and suddenly familiar things falling into a new pattern, which in turn changes the significance of those things.

MM When I stepped out of the narrow arts trajectory, there were so many events happening in the world–large social and cultural events like the collapse of communism, the growing awareness of a global society.

In addition, I realized that what we were doing to the natural environment, to our Earth, was effectively a nuclear explosion happening so slowly that we did not even see it – how we nonchalantly take nature as an industrial resources and nothing more.

I tried to understand why we humans are so habitually destructive and how art is implicated in that destruction. I talked with leaders in environmental, artistic, and social issues to try and understand these issues. Together, I call all these ideas the ‘rumble.’ And it was why I felt I could not continue to make art in the isolated context of the traditional art world.

SZ How did you get into this type of work, from which Pomegranate eventually grew?

I came to the USA in the 1970s and I made it a point to meet many interesting leaders and visit cutting-edge organizations dealing with spiritual, environmental, economic, and social issues, and try to learn how they go about their business. I discovered that most organizations which were ideologically based were organized around core belief systems. These they promoted to attract like-minded people. Many eventually turned into psychologically gated communities tolerating some and ignoring others.

Increasingly I started to see this proposition as problem rather than a solution. When starting Pomegranate Center, I wanted instead to explore the idea of community of differences. I wanted to explore if it is possible to create conditions where differences are not perceived as obstacles and irritations, but as assets.

In other words, I wanted to see if it was possible to work together in spite of ideological and cultural differences. Is it possible to create conditions where people are at their best together in spite of seeing their world differently? Is it possible to combine their insights into larger understanding rather than compete for the prevalence of their pre-existing views and beliefs.

In other words, is it possible that we together uncover something larger and more meaningful than we can alone?

When we work on our community-built gathering places, I can’t afford to take sides or have preferences for a certain type of person. We get all kinds of religious and political volunteers, but we simply focus on what needs to be done, ‘Here is a project we can do together, do you want to help?’ We found repeatedly that people are perfectly able to collaborate and create great, meaningful projects together. Like any artistic work, we begin with hearing ideas; we sketch out possible designs; we select the design that is most in tune with the site, local culture and local talents, that is doable on time and budget; we work with many volunteers to build it; and we help them organize programs there and encourage the people to take care of them. I think the power of our projects lies in working with people who are participants in the creation of a large artwork and they see their ideas taking shape quickly. In our times where most people are in jobs where they are in charge of tiny parts of large and complex operations, where their contributions are abstract, our artistic and collaborative projects give participants a sense of real accomplishment, of great satisfaction that results in pride, increased trust, and greater sense of safety. In one neighborhood where we did a project four years ago, crime rate fell by 40% and has stayed there for four years. This is good!

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