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Milenko Looks Back

It has been nearly a year since Milenko Matanovic stepped away from the day-to-day work of running Pomegranate Center, but between speaking engagements, writing, an upcoming art exhibit, and founding the Institute for Everyday Democracy, he’s certainly not slowing down. We sat down and chatted with him about his past work, present endeavors, and future goals–for Pomegranate Center and beyond.


Looking back over 30 years, what was the biggest challenge Pomegranate Center and you faced?
Pomegranate Center is a miracle. I started with an intuition, but no knowledge of the nonprofit world. We learned as we went along, building the plane while flying it.

We’ve been very lucky to receive help throughout the years in the form of donations from enlightened individuals and a handful of significant grants that helped us expand our work. The great majority of those grants came uninvited. People who learned about our work contacted me and got involved. All major grants came from well beyond the Puget Sound region: Eastern WA, California, and Vermont. So, the biggest challenge has been to receive acceptance and support from the Seattle region. We received grants and contracts for single projects. But we received no sustaining support that would allow us to better embed our experience into the region. I imagined the approach of creating a community space in a few short months with vigorous engagement in all phases and on a fraction of a budget would be good news to foundations and municipalities seeking to create more vital, safe communities. But after three decades, we still need to work hard to convince people about the value and applicability of our well-tested method.

It could be me: strange accent, artistic stubbornness, a refusal to over-dramatize our importance, the poly-mission approach that can be confusing.

It could be the lack of champions presenting our case so we could not be dismissed so easily.

It could be that our work is scattered around the continent and its impact is hard to grasp.

It could be that we were ahead of the curve and provided answers to the questions not yet asked.

It could also be that people in positions of power support ideas of their own making and are skeptical of any other ideas and approaches. It often feels like every organization has tracks firmly laid out and, in order to be taken seriously, one needs to get on with their plan. There is little patience for thoughts outside that plan.

I learned this the hard way when I tried to pitch our work to a foundation with community and art programs. When I told them about our model of combining the two, they corrected me: it must be one or the other. For someone like me who naturally connects the art bone to the community bone, this was very rigid and shortsighted.

So the greatest challenge is to find more partners to graft our experience on other systems. I am not pleased with myself that, after 30 years, our model is not used on a larger scale. I think Eric will be more successful. I have no illusion of our work. It is not the answer, but it is a powerful component that can be put to use more broadly and with more support.


You transitioned out of the role of Executive Director at the start of the year. What have you been up to for the last nine months?
Working with Pomegranate Center as Executive Director and founder, as you can well imagine, is busy work: raising money, board and staff meetings, community meetings, design workshops, building and art-making, talks, and trainings. It is all fast time. That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years. Since I stepped away from the day-to-day responsibilities that are now in Eric’s trusting hands, I rediscovered slower time–I read more, talk with friends and colleagues, make art, walk, and think more.

I reconnected with my art in a whole new way.  In May I attended the opening of the Venice Biennale, where a few photos of projects from the group OHO (of which I was a member) from 1969 were on display. The group’s work was recognized as an early example of the connection between art and nature. I was invited for a solo exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana in 2018, entitled something like “50 Years of Milenko Matanovic’s Art.” I will show work from the OHO years, do several original installations, and will also show Pomegranate Center projects where I served as the lead designer. It will probably be very confusing to art historians because I will show many different faces. It will be a wonderful challenge to fill up 4,000 square feet of space.


What is your artistic vision and how has it changed since coming to the U.S.?
In my native Slovenia (part of former Yugoslavia) I became an artist because I knew no better way to rebel against the socialist groupthink and everyone telling me how I needed to behave. I felt it was really important to establish my individuality. I would go into nature and do quick improvisational installations. I brought the same spirit when invited to show in museums. We, the OHO group, didn’t bring already created works. We’d come and look at the space, just as I did at the natural setting, and then purchase materials that were usually inexpensive and non-artistic–I’d buy them in hardware stores or farmers’ markets or sometimes scavenge them from waste yards. That was my style. I adopted this same approach later for Pomegranate Center projects.

When I came to the United States, I was struck by the focus on individuality. It is celebrated as a virtue to such an extreme that the country is out of balance with all kinds of social, economic, and environmental problems. After I lived here for some years, I decided to focus on the ideas of community and the common good: things that bind us together and bind us to nature. This is how Pomegranate Center started: I would push art into life and community. My artistic role changed from an artist who had pursued an individual career to now thinking that whatever meager skills I had to offer, I would put them to use for the community. Over the years, my colleagues and I invented a process that was honest in integrating people, not just using them as implementers of my idea, but authors of their own ideas. It taught me to listen.


In the last nine months, you have not only focused on art, you also founded the Institute for Everyday Democracy. What was the catalyst for this new program?
Yes, I wanted to respond to what is happening to our society right now. How come our public discourse is so precarious and volatile? Why is it so filled with blame and resistance to change? Especially with the last election, I feel that we need to start paying attention to the underpinnings that support our democratic system. The idea is that our societal “operating system” needs an update, to push the focus back on all of us and pay closer attention to how we engage with each other and make decisions for the future. All of us need to do this work. Right now, in the age of “fake news,” it will fall on all of us to reclaim the truth and do our part in such a way that the whole is enhanced. This will take an unprecedented level of collaboration between professions, sectors, cultural groups, and generations. The possibilities are very exciting.


How will this happen?
The goal of the Institute is to create a laboratory to dig deeper into ideas that are impacting and shaping us at this moment in time: What is our image of the future? What does it means to be a whole person in the 21st century? What is art for? Why are communities important? How should our cities better prepare for the future?

During my 30 years of running Pomegranate Center, I only had energy to do the needed work. Now I have flexibility to reach out and talk with people doing similar work, to network. We will hold gatherings to invite interested individuals and organizations into conversations and explore the relevance to their fields of work. We will create articles, blogs, a podcast, and videos. I will offer talks. And we will involve others to better understand what can be done. When ready, we will also organize salons to explore the Institute ideas with others. Let us know if you are interested in participating or sponsoring such a gathering.


How will the Institute’s work interact with the rest of Pomegranate Center’s programs?
I always felt that the strength of Pomegranate Center was that we were not afraid to jump into action. This led us into very real, very gritty places where people with marked differences came together to create something of common value. This work with communities will continue. In the last five years, we’ve really started to build on that experience and started to train others in the Pomegranate Center Method of community engagement. There are now more than 300 people who have been through our trainings, in California, Washington, Oregon, and New Zealand.

So the first Pomegranate Center track is real projects of designing and building with communities. The second track is our training where we are especially excited to work with municipal and county agencies to improve their community engagement processes. The Institute is the third, research and development, track allowing us to intentionally connect with others exploring similar ideas. I invite our community to join me on this track and ask important questions with me.