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By Fractured Atlas on January 24th, 2024

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Reimagining a more caring creative economy with Fractured Atlas COO Alberto Mejia

Big Ideas | Leadership | Economic Justice | Interview

This past summer, the Fractured Atlas ecosystem welcomed Alberto Mejia as our organization’s new Chief Operating Officer. As the confetti settled, it was time to sit down and chat expansively with Alberto. He shares his personal definitions of artist support and solidarity, his hopes for the creative economy, and how fiscal sponsorship can fit into this complex puzzle. We hope you enjoy Alberto’s colorful window into Fractured Atlas’s work.

Alberto (he/him) lives in Austin, Texas with his 5-year-old Artis, wife Estrella, and pets Perla, Luna, and Miztli. Informing his work within organizations is his artistic identity as a hip-hop artist who engages with the practices of indigenous cultural tradition, community building & dance. Alberto has held creative leadership positions across a rich array of cultural institutions, including the City of Austin, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Creative Action, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, and the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

You can usually find him swimming, dancing to house music, playing basketball, engaging in a lively dialogue on hip-hop or cultural trends, and eating various smoked proteins in the form of a taco. While this interview unfortunately doesn’t include tacos or house music, it is full of lively dialogue on artistic trends and potential creative futures.


Leading an artful life

Fractured Atlas (FA)
: What was one of the first creative communities you engaged with? Has art always been a part of your life?

Alberto: What a beautiful question. My late father was a gifted artist who first honed his aesthetics through graffiti and later as a craftsman in the maritime industry. My mother is an artistic DIY savant that can improvise sculpture and costume with anything you give her. As a young person, I thought I might become a visual artist, but I would say music—in particular house music and hip-hop culture—have informed my approach to leading an artful life. 

The community aesthetics present in these forms—of peace, love, unity, respect, fun, improvisation, self knowledge, even social entrepreneurship—catalyzed my own artistic journey. Beyond that, as a Chicano raised and realized in the borderlands of the West and the Salish Sea region of the pacific northwest, I am formed from abundant and complicated cultures and peoples. Art and culture are always creating us and us creating them, whether we articulate that movement or not.


Making meaning within the creative economy

: Firstly, how would you describe the creative economy? And how do you see the creative economy intersecting with other fields and economies now, and in the future?

Alberto: In an immediate, transactional sense I look to the United Nations’ evolving definition of the creative economy, which is based on “the contribution and potential of creative assets to contribute to economic growth and development” from individual to global levels.  

But perhaps that default economic orientation, which prioritizes growth and development, needs revision? Or at least, should be secondary to the more realistic and urgent potential and application of creative and cultural assets to economic sustainability and homeostasis at the personal, social and ecological levels.

At the broadest level, the creative economy is about valuing imagination as an inherent economic resource rather than solely valuing the traditional resources of land, labor and capital. Shoutout to John Howkins and more importantly, indigenous peoples the world over. These values extend beyond just the creative industries.

Both personally and politically, I think culture and art may be the most vital ways we have of making meaning with one another. When we make the world together over and over, we decide what the natural, inevitable, and lasting conditions will be. So the creative economy is as much the cultural programs that the neighborhood arts auntie runs out of her garage, as it is our evolving museums reckoning with their histories, as it is cultural intermediaries trying to evolve their tools and strategies to meet the moment and serve their constituents. The sites, activities and responses where we make meaning with one another is the creative economy. 

My guiding hope is that the creative economy I serve operates as a counter hegemonic system, allowing the global majority to co-create culture with one another—rather than simply perpetuating beliefs, explanations, perceptions and values that do not serve us personally, socially, and ecologically. 



Possibility, grief, and transformations


FA: What are some challenges and opportunities that you see arising from our current uncertain times?

Alberto: Historic inflection points are always happening. What has happened on a mass level with the co-incidents of the global pandemic, wars and genocide, racial and social justice uprisings, and accelerating climate crises are not unlike what has already happened multiple times to multiple cultures and people here in this country, continent and world. Author Rebecca Roanhorse, who is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo descent, stated in a New York Times article on the influence and impact of indigenous writers, “We’ve already survived an apocalypse,” which really moved me in a profound way.

To the uninitiated heart, this may feel like a purely bleak statement. But for me it teems with possibility. What if we animate our capacity to learn from and with people whose worlds have had to be propagated over and over in the face of violence, derision and doubt? How do we better commune with people who build worlds for themselves within this one, as a loving act of creative and spiritual resistance?

What transformative teachings, possibilities and joys can be unlocked from properly honoring and metabolizing personal, communal and cultural grief? I see so much potential for us to redevelop our ability to witness one another, and art is an essential part of this transformation. Black science fiction and speculative literature has had a rippling cultural response, creating and catalyzing emergent strategy. Indigenous science fiction expresses life beyond colonialism, from the lens of peoples whose worlds have ended. Disabled artists and creators dilate the presupposed world. Queer and trans artists and creatives give new space and dimension to love fully and fearlessly.

Whether we are ready or not, the Earth itself is disallowing us of our overt or passive beliefs and investments in colonialism, extractivism and the enclosure of wealth. Stepping through the portal we find ourselves in, hearing the hum of shared power that could be on the other side—I find hope in these transformative possibilities.

Beyond consumption


FA: From your perspective, what does support for artists look like? How does it manifest in the systems that we can create?

Alberto: To me, support starts with care. I think caring about artists means caring about culture, and ideally not just your own. It also means caring about people and not just what they create for you to consume, like or dislike.

On the way to volunteer at a cultural event, I gave a ride to an artist and the art he had created for the event. After we carefully loaded the sculptural installation into my truck and began driving, he became quite candid about his struggles with money. He bravely unpacked his attitudes towards money, and the influence of his community’s attitude towards it.  I learned about a series of catastrophic events that led him into a reflective and redemptive two year period of shadow work. He shared what was revealed to him through this work, which was that people liked and cared about his art, but not him. 

I’ve heard this sentiment from so many people, expressed in countless different ways, over the course of my career. And yet, at that moment, his words still felt like a punch in the center of my chest. I’m sure no one likes feeling this way. I certainly don’t, especially since so much of my work is focused on operationalizing care for people, and artists in particular. But not “liking” this feeling couldn't take away from the importance of this conversation and metabolizing it into taking a restorative action for both him and me.

Simply put, liking, disliking or consuming art is not enough to support or sustain a living practice for artists. Relatedly, our skepticism and philosophical critiques of the systems artists are subject to, however healthy or well founded, won't feed us or stabilize our communities. Not unless we shape them into alternative, applied models.

Supporting art only as a consumer or co-signer props up a mythological binary of the rarefied, individual genius and the perpetually marginalized, misunderstood outsider. We can do better than a picture of feast or famine—that cultural production can only exist on a tightrope between sanctimonious meritocracy or a meaningless lottery.

I don’t have a single, easy answer, but I do think there are some decent places to start as far as systems are concerned. People that want to support artists can stretch their ideas about culture from a space of commodity to one of ecology, to expand their thinking of not only just buying what they like, but also supporting the infrastructure that allows what they like to exist in the first place.

There are some global examples that support this way of thinking. For example, in 2024 the city of Berlin will invest €947 million to support cultural institutions including clubs and venues (which they consider cultural sites). This is more than double the size of Arts Council England’s entire 2023 budget and quadruple the U.S.’s National Endowment of the Arts 2023 dispersal amount ($228.90 million or €214.74 million, if you were curious). I live in Austin, Texas. While not Berlin, it's also a proud arts city with a growing tax base—and yet, the combined commitment for cultural contracts and support for music and entertainment funding for the 2024 fiscal year is just over $27.64 million. I don’t know if it’s useful to get mad about this, but it should feel weird because it is weird. What do these numbers say about our values? What beautiful things are we missing out on as a result? What is our collective response as authoritarianism, censorship, and manipulated social divisions could make these numbers even more disparate?

In both private and nonprofit sectors, I sometimes wonder if business-as-usual culture has set us up as competitors more than collaborators, to the detriment of supporting artists. I have witnessed people defend trade secrets and hoard relationships, only for them to become obsolete before they are shared or leveraged for the greater good. Far more than preserving my own utility or position within the sector, I am interested in learning and making an articulate contribution to the lived experience of artists and creatives. Many fellow artists feel this way, too.

What could we do instead of compete?  To me, it could look like this: people collaborating and prototyping across sectors, to map out the strengths, gaps, and unsung opportunities in supporting artists. Whether it’s through government funding, local real estate and planning, for profit and non profit lending intuitions, health care, higher learning, public schools, tech platforms and arts service organizations. So much more is possible when we engage in deep listening with the organizations and artists we claim and aim to serve. 

To bring it back home and take our conversation full circle, let’s revisit the artist I mentioned earlier—also known as the time I carpooled with a sculpture. After it was installed at the event, the sculpture created a space and site for celebration and cultural affirmation. It created a freeing space within Texas—a state where bodily autonomy is criminalized, workers are unprotected in extreme weather due to lax laws and murderous barriers are sculpted into the land and water to prevent migration.  Hundreds of people and families, mostly Latine and working class, posed for smiling selfies and breathed life into the sculpture, creating memories and culture through it. He and they create that space. We support the possibility of that space.

Reader’s goodie bag (i.e. Alberto’s recs)

: What are you listening to, consuming, ruminating on in 2024? Music recs welcome.

Alberto: Here are some current highlights for me:

Music/Audio: Jean Dawson, Circle Round (kids folktales), Jungle, Pale Jay, 28AV, Barry Can't Swim, Sophia Kourtesis, Little Dragon, Fred Again

Film: Boy and the World, Uyra - The Rising ForestAmerican Fiction

Shows: Treme, True Detective

Books: The Next Economy MBA, Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection, Connected From Afar: A Guide for Staying Close When You're Far AwayThe Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times

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