Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders: Carlos Contreras

September 10, 2018

By: April Greene for ArtPlace America

The words “artist” and “bureaucrat” can seem as opposite as the north and south poles. But poets, actors, musicians, dancers, and art-makers of all other stripes have been infiltrating our government’s ranks for years—and many are making great strides.

In this story series, we’re visiting with accomplished artists who hold leadership roles in their cities about their dual callings, how their creative lives relate to their public service, and what the arts can bring to good government.



Carlos Contreras

Director of Innovation & Marketing, Mayor’s Office, Albuquerque, New Mexico

National Poetry Slam champion & founder of Immastar Productions

“I think Albuquerque already is cool—just not everybody knows it.”


ArtPlace: What do you do in the Mayor’s Office and how did you get there?

Contreras: The administration that came in [last year] with Mayor Tim Keller noticed an opportunity to better message what our city was doing. We have nine council districts; we have the City and County; and we have nearly two dozen departments, all within the City of Albuquerque. Important work was being done in each of them, but it was often isolated; not always done with the thought of how it could best be communicated. That doesn’t seem like a big oversight until you realize how important communications can be to affect change. So we streamline and connect the dots to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

In general, in my life as a working artist and a hustling human being, none of it has been linear, and it remains that way. I’ve become comfortable with that. [This job] wasn’t a path I saw coming. I was surprised to get a call with this opportunity, frankly. I had a background in community organizing, but it was guerrilla—which doesn’t typically scream “municipality!” I bring a skill set to this work that hasn’t been there before. There are early signs that it’s working, and that’s exciting.

Keller ran on a platform of One City: wanting to link the different departments so we can be as one. When he was elected, it shifted to making good on the goals he set in his campaign: these more efficient, collaborative efforts. What has been cool is that it’s changed from One City to One Albuquerque, so everything now has that message: education, housing, healthcare… It’s a development tool, but also a movement-builder.

Now as I sit in this space, I’m tasked with project managing a team to create social campaigns, logos, etc, that resonate with this idea. It hasn’t come completely naturally to me, but I can get behind it. All I’ve ever known is being an artist. My favorite spaces have been those in which I’ve been able to collaborate with other artists. So this is a fun space for me to sit in, where we can include people and get them motivated for positivity and change.


ArtPlace: Besides your role in local government, you are a poet and poetry slam champion. What’s the best thing poetry has done for you?

Contreras: For me, it’s been like the only person I can talk to. It’s been that space where I’m not afraid to say all the things I want to say. It’s not pretty; it’s self-reflective work about emotional traumas, anxiety, loss… A lot of people who are operating at a high level, who are big on social media and in the public eye, don’t want to [be that open]. I’m unapologetically me. That’s developed the ability for people to have trust. I’m this very honest person, and that leads to being effective, efficient, and accountable. I realize we’re all human beings. Poetry has allowed me to be an open-minded and compassionate person. Poetry is a reminder to me that we’re all human beings. The poetry scene here has created that safe space for people where they can be just that. It’s my safe space.


ArtPlace: In your Humans of New Mexico interview, you speak about being born and raised in Albuquerque and how you love it, but that sometimes people critique what it doesn’t have. What do you think your city needs more of, and how can it achieve those things?

Contreras: Really what will fill any gaps in Albuquerque is this collaborate and community effort. We have a lot of what we sometimes think we’re missing. The reality I’m becoming aware of more and more is that just not everybody is informed.

Our Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said to me, “Your job is to make Albuquerque cool again.” I said, “With all due respect, ma’am, I think it already is cool—just not everybody knows it.” So the task is, how do we magnify it? How do we involve people in what’s good, in how can they get a revenue stream going here? How can we meet people more than halfway, so they don’t have to go looking for the information they need—they just run into it? It behooves us to use all these new channels we’re developing [like social media] to do this.


ArtPlace:Do you think the arts are important to democracy?

Contreras: The reality of our world is that the arts exist either way. As a government, do you want them to exist in conversation with you, or about you? Our Poet Laureate Program is a great example. Art creates a more inviting space for dialogue when you’re talking about government.

Some people I know will say, “I don’t vote; it doesn’t matter anyway.” But when they’re touched by this stuff, they ask, “Okay, so what is the government doing?” It involves them in a unique way, because art is less about answers and more about questions. It gets them asking what’s going on; it gets questions to come from communities who might not have asked them before. If we’re asking people across incomes, races, and ages a question they can respond to, we’re fighting to not leave them out of the conversation.


ArtPlace: Have you had insights from your work in government that have informed your art practice? How about from your art practice that have informed your day job?

Contreras: These days, sitting in this chair, the varied and surprisingly large network that was developed by my poetry posts and touring and workshops and speaking, in and around Albuquerque and the greater Southwest, is coming into play a lot. We might be in a strategy meeting and the idea of speaking to some institution or individual in our community comes up and I can say, “I know so-and-so; let’s call them.” The fact that my access point was originally created in the art space allows me to reach out and say, “Here’s what I’m talking about with the city, and it has everything to do with what you're doing.” In most municipalities, I don’t think you see that. That’s been neat, to feel like in some senses we are gaining a place for [these new] individuals at the table.


ArtPlace: Can we use a quote from your Humans of New Mexico interview? “Art is economic development in Albuquerque, but unless you create a possibility for those connections and those experiences then we don’t move forward.”

Contreras: I feel more like that now than ever. It’s fitting that you picked that quote: we’re releasing our plan for economic development soon, and there’s been a pivot toward small, local businesses, and those owned by women and people of color and those that started here. We’re not shying away from attracting investment from out of state or large companies, but we’re looking more at how we can support homegrowns. That leans toward creatives; our city is full of them. And that means culinary arts, trades, makers, all practitioners of sustainable livelihoods. If we just support their desire to do that, it’s real. One Albuquerque is pushing that.


ArtPlace: Any parting shots?

Contreras: Keep an eye on Albuquerque and how it’s aiming to equitably serve its residents. If you like it, move here! Albuquerque embraces those who move here as much as those who were born and raised here. Albuquerque is capitalizing on its hope for the future.




Meet more artists in government in these posts:

- A Love Letter to the City: Amanda Lovelee reflects on her tenure as City Artist for Public Art Saint Paul in Minnesota.

- Guerilla Artists Swing into Government: Peter Svarzbein rode a wave of public support for his El Paso Transnational Trolley art project to a city council seat.

- What Happens When Creatives Work at the Mayor’s Office?: Kara Elliott-Ortega, Director of Planning & Policy in the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston, on the intersection of arts and culture with community development in her city.

- Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders: Natalia Macker: Actor, film producer, and artistic director of a local theater company, Natalia Macker also serves on the Board of County Commissioners in Teton County, Wyoming.

Check out this newsletter from the Civic Arts Project on artists in government