In most Western countries, the arts are having a hard time.  Especially in the current financial crisis, the arts are viewed as non-essential. And the funding that is available goes to areas that are seen as more urgent like education and healthcare (oh, and—football and huge sports spectacles like the Olympics!!!- we’re talking about billions here, of government, industrial, and private funds).

In Holland where I live,  most people find the arts irrelevant to their daily lives. One Dutch right-wing politician recently wrote off all of human art and culture as  ‘a leftist hobby’. This slogan was gleefully picked up by the media, and is indicative of a fundamental mistrust of the arts that is alive in a large segment of the population. Granted, the contemporary art business hasn’t done a lot to encourage trust.

For many of us in the arts sector, though,  the budget cuts aren’t what hurt the most,  it’s the open attitude of contempt toward the arts and artists underlying them.
And, as destructive to the arts as this, is the total absorption of art into the consumer system, so that art’s value has come to be defined exclusively in financial terms.

The consequence of these conditions is that the real value of art to a human society is lost, both in the sense of being lost, as well as negated.

But what is that intrinsic worth of art, what do the arts do that makes them valuable in themselves?

What are the arguments for declaring arts and artist’s right to exist, for supporting them morally and financially, and locating them in a central rather than marginal role in the lives of the community?

This has been a vital question for most my life as an artist. And recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has gotten a real shot of support from the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
It is a collection of 30 interviews with highly credentialed professionals including social theorists and scholars, philanthropists, scientists, theologians, artists, community development-, and community arts activists.

The people interviewed were asked what, if any role, the arts have in bringing about a just and sustainable society.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the interviews. I’ve divided them into the following categories:

  • Expanding the definition of ‘artist’
  • Organisations need to change but so do artists
  • How artists contribute to positive change
  • The arts and community building

to be continued

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.

Stay tuned, In a few days, I’ll be posting the personal interview I had with Milenko and a slide show of some of Pomegranate’s recent projects.