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(E) Michael Milkovich - our pride
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  12/2/2001 | Culture And Arts | Unrated
(E) Michael Milkovich - our pride
The following appeared on Nov. 24 in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times 
concerning the now retired director of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 
city. John Kraljic 
ST. PETERSBURG -- Michael Milkovich was born in Croatia under a full 
moon on Friday the 13th, 1929, circumstances, he says, "that explain a 
few things about me." 
Milkovich, who recently retired after almost 20 years as director of the 
Museum of Fine Arts, would be the first to say his life has been one 
interesting ride. His father, a businessman, lost everything when the 
Communists took control of Croatia. During high school, Milkovich was 
sent to a labor camp because he attended church. As a young man, he fled 
to Germany as a political refugee after participating in a protest at 
the University of Zagreb. He studied at the universities of Madrid and 
Heidelberg but wanted to leave Germany in 1956. He came to the United 
States almost by accident: 
"There was an opening to go to Australia, but we knew that they were 
taking only workers, so all night I rubbed a broom to develop callouses, 
to show that I am a worker," he relates. "They saw me and they kicked me 
out, by the way, and thanks to God, because I got the word soon from the 
American Embassy that my visa had been approved." 
He landed in Cleveland, but the fluent speaker of German, Russian, 
Spanish and Italian did not understand English. He and his wife were 
expecting their first child. He had little money and no job offers. His 
first employment was with Cleveland Drill Co., manning and cleaning the 
machines on the night shift. He says of that time, "I walked home, and 
they could smell me three blocks away." 
Through hard work and ambition, he learned English, earned a master's 
degree in art history and began his climb through the art world, which 
culminated in his appointment as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in 
St. Petersburg. 
Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen, had four sons, divorced, 
remarried and divorced again. Before coming to Florida, he became 
founding director of the University Art Gallery at the State University 
of New York and the Dixson Gallery and Gardens in Memphis. He survived a 
bout with cancer. 
Milkovich's tenure in St. Petersburg, though remarkably long for the art 
world, has not always been smooth. In 1994, after clashing with a 
handful of board members, he was fired, then rehired by the full board. 
His last seven years have been marked by significant acquisitions for 
the collection and a string of successful exhibitions. One of his most 
successful was also closest to his heart, a show of naive Croatian art 
he brought from his homeland. 
Milkovich, 72, who plans to spend his retirement here and in Croatia, 
recently talked with the Times about his career and his thoughts about 
the museum and the city upon his retirement: 
Lennie Bennett: How did you feel about St. Petersburg when you first saw 
it in 1982? 
Michael Milkovich: Lee (Malone, the retiring director of the museum) 
called and said, "Why don't you come for an interview? You will enjoy 
visiting St. Petersburg." I was not really interested in the job, 
because when I left Memphis, I wanted to finish my doctoral degree. I 
came here, and they put me in the motel across the street. It was a 
weekend and I had a headache, so I went to the manager. I said, "Sir, do 
you have aspirin?" He said no. I said, "Where can I buy it?" He said, "I 
think the closest place to buy aspirin is Tampa." I said to myself, 
"Michael, what are you doing?" But when I saw St. Petersburg, when I saw 
the beaches, I said, "To hell with the Ph.D." 
L.B.: You couldn't find aspirin, but still you took the job because you 
liked the beaches? 
M.M.: That's right. Now, 20 years later, I am still here. 
L.B.: Let's talk about the expansion. 
M.M.: In 1989, we decided that we needed expansion. It cost us 
$2-million. We doubled the gallery from 10 to 20 galleries, office area 
doubled, storage area doubled. You could not even see that there was any 
addition or any change; it was very beautifully done. 
L.B.: How have things changed in regard to fundraising, capital 
campaigns in the more than 10 years since the last one happened here? 
M.M.: The museum got more support. Our challenge fund -- that's the end 
of the year when members of the board get together to supplement the 
operating budget -- it was $100,000 last year. We have $200,000-$300,000 
this year, so really it's improving. We became more ambitious as far as 
the exhibitions are concerned. There was plenty of support there. 
L.B: What would you say to someone who believes that with all the need 
in the world, art is extraneous, a luxury? 
M.M.: Well, for some people that might be their feeling, but lots of 
people don't want to come into a community where they don't have more 
than just bread and water. They want culture, they want programs, they 
want museums. And this is part of life. It's not luxury; this is a 
spiritual need which helps us to maintain a certain level of civilized 
life . . . absolutely I feel that way. 
L.B.: Is there one single work of art here that you love more than any 
M.M.: I use always an example. If you have four children and you ask 
what is your favorite child, you cannot say. . . . No, I don't have any 
L.B.: Have you heard the charge that the museum is perceived by some 
people as elitist? 
M.M.: Yes, and this was the subject of every meeting of the (national) 
Association of Art Museum Directors -- how we should make ourselves 
available. And we should do every effort, and we are, bringing 
minorities, bringing special programs, but we should not forget one 
thing: that there are people who are just not interested. They are more 
religiously inclined, more sports, more music, more something. I did 
everything in my power to have groups, different groups, different 
communities to come, but if they don't want to come, I don't accept that 
responsibility and that blame. 
L.B.: And do you feel the membership has become more diversified? 
M.M.: Oh, definitely, definitely. It still could be much better, of 
course, but it did absolutely change. Our membership -- around 4,000 -- 
is a good proof we have variety of programs. 
L.B.: Now you are director emeritus of the museum. 
M.M.: Yeah, it is a recognition by the institution where I worked, in 
this case almost 20 years, that I have done something right, and it is a 
personal satisfaction. 
L.B.: That's a long time to be at one place in the art world, isn't it? 
M.M.: It is. You could count 20-year directors probably on one hand, 
maybe two. 
L.B.: Were you ever tempted to go to another museum? 
M.M: No, I was never tempted, even when they (Fine Arts Museum board 
members) kicked me out; then I had more desire to come back to prove 
that they were wrong. I knew this was my last job, last museum. 
L.B.: And what are your plans now? 
M.M.: I joke with my friends, I tell them while I was working, I was 
working 9 to 5. Now I work 8 to 6, except that I take a nap every day. 
That's the best discovery after discovering America: a nap. I love it. I 
will be spending more time with my sons, who live in Florida and New 
York, and grandchildren, and in Croatia, where I have a brother and his 
family. And I offered . . . to assist different museums (in Croatia) 
every year, maybe spending one month with the development, with the 
membership, which they don't have in Europe. 
L.B.: How would you assess your tenure at the Museum of Fine Arts? 
M.M.: If you would ask me what I feel best about, No. 1, I reached the 
community. No. 2, I made our museum more visible nationally and 
internationally. L.B.: Is it getting harder to get paintings from other 
museums because of security concerns, especially after Sept. 11? 
M.M.: Yes and no. For a good project, you will always get a loan. But it 
has to be good. 
L.B.: Do you think people are more reluctant to donate art to museums, 
preferring to sell works to the highest bidders? 
M.M.: Well, that depends. If somebody's in need, (he) probably wants to 
sell it, but if somebody has a collection, it's better for them to give 
to the museum, taxwise, and that's the one phenomenon of America. I 
think Americans, by nature, are very, very generous. 
L.B.: Any parting remarks you want to make? 
M.M.: I came here, no money, did not speak English, did not have anybody 
to recommend me, to give me anything. I worked hard. I was lucky. I did 
what I wanted and was paid for it. That only could happen in America. It 
was a most wonderful experience. 
We are very proud of you Michael Milkovich (btw: early CROWN subscirber) and 
your dedicated work, which ONLY promoted GOOD for all of us Croatians in the 
world. Don't stop. 70s are middle age now. 
Nenad Bach 
distributed by CROWN (Croatian World Net) - 
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