Meow Wolf: What went fab their first year and what’s in the works

by Patty Templeton

Is that a house or an amalgamation of wormholes leading to parallel dimensions? Both!

The House of Eternal Return is a permanent, multimedia art installation that opened in March 2016, and takes up 20,000 square feet and, in the very least, two hours of your life to traverse through. It’s the enchantingly offbeat outcome of over 100 artists’ efforts to concoct a psychedelic, immersive art experience.

Meow Wolf is the arts production company behind it all. They went from being a ragtag group of DIY artists to an internationally known art collective pushing a radically inclusive art movement in the span of a year.

DGO spoke to Vince Kadlubek, CEO and co-founder of Meow Wolf, about what they’ve learned and where they’re headed.

Outside of the pure number of people coming through, about a half a million of them, what’s something Meow Wolf’s really proud of at the House of Eternal Return?The community we have built with our team and our fan base, the customers, it feels like, yes, we are a business, but it feels like we are something more than a business. We’ve maintained this collective character and collective mentality, and a good amount of our customers feel that, too – like they are supporting a movement as much as they are supporting a single experience.

Keeping true to our character and continuing the DIY aesthetic, because it is DIY, only on a much larger scale now. Maintaining that. Not feeling like we have to contract out the operations or the finances or the fundraising. We do all of it ourselves. I’m really proud of that.

The House of Eternal Return had its first birthday in March. What’s a hella learning curve Meow Wolf faced during that time? At every step, there’s new learning curves that are of equal magnitude. When we first started, it was understanding investment and fundraising and how to properly staff a team of artists and fabricators.

Once we opened, it has taken an entire year to get our operations to the point of being able to feel confident, step back, and let the thing run itself. There’s HR and insurance and all of the responsibilities of employing 100-plus people.

Now that we have the operations down, I wish we would’ve been better prepared for success. We were preparing for opening the doors to something we knew would be popular, but we weren’t planning on this being such a success so fast and I wish we had. We could have been better positioned to stay ahead of the momentum and control it rather than have the momentum control us.

How will the House of Eternal Return morph over the years, or will it be maintained as is? We closed down for two weeks in January. We added four major exhibition pieces that we promoted as being new rooms, new experiences. We’ll probably do that once a year. Then, maybe a couple years from now, we may do a larger expansion. It is going to be minimal. It doesn’t need total overhaul. We want to keep it fresh.

How the heck do you upkeep a logistical nightmare like the House of Eternal Return?The audience is really a lot more respectful than you might imagine. Everyone we meet in the theme park industry can’t believe that we just let people touch whatever they want. Things get damaged here or there, but for the most part, people are really respectful.

We close down once a week. Every Tuesday we’re closed. We use Tuesdays to keep the place fresh. We don’t outsource the cleaning or maintenance; we do that, the artists do that. The people who made the exhibits are also taking care of it and improving it on a weekly basis.

Did Meow Wolf buy an enormous Caterpillar plant in Santa Fe? Yeah. It’s a manufacturing space. It’s where we’re going to be able to make all of the things that we’re currently contracted to make and then future major exhibitions.

Word on the street’s that there’s a mobile Meow Wolf in the works.We are working on a traveling exhibition that will go to multiple venues around the country. Currently, we’re in negotiations to where that will land first.

There’s also rumblings of a new Meow Wolf installation in the works …We’re looking at two cities, specifically, Denver and Austin. Those are the cities we have the most momentum behind, but we are also looking at Houston, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis – those cities also have momentum behind them. We aim to look toward the next 20 years and various cities to create these permanent installations, utilizing the creative talents of that community in collaboration with the Santa Fe Meow Wolf team.

We’re hoping to have some announcements this summer as to where we are solidly going, but it is currently still up in the air.

In future exhibits, will there be more of a push to make more spaces accessible to individuals with disabilities?We’ve had that concern on multiple occasions in the past year. Seventy percent of [The House of Eternal Return] is viewable by someone who is in a wheelchair. With that said, we do want to create, in future exhibits, an even higher percentage of accessibility, even though we do pass code and it is ADA compliant.

We recognize the significance of each individual piece of work and each individual room and want to be able to have as many people as possible, no matter who they are, to be able to experience those spaces. That is definitely on our mind.

Any mega cool events happening at Meow Wolf this summer? We have music shows every week based on artists coming to town.

The thing we just launched and announced is “Summer in the Multiverse.” It’s a theatrical overlay to the exhibition and to the entire property. Throughout the summer, from now until the end of August, visitors will get theatrical activations both inside the experience, in the lobby, and in the parking lot. It’s a psychedelic performance festival. [Marketing Director John Feins added, “Over 100 performers in 50 different types of performances, all happening at random, every day until Aug. 20 … Santa Fe and northern New Mexico talent … You’re talking about acrobats, aerialists, fencers, mimes, actors, and musicians.]

How does supporting local Santa Fe come into Meow Wolf’s mission?We are interested in local products and interested in local space and being able to cultivate local ideas.

This type of work, fringe, psychedelic, underground, base current creative industry has never had a real economic import system … We see ourselves as a business that has the ability to create a windfall of funding and resources for an entire demographic of creatives that have previously gone without funding. In a for-profit sort of way. This isn’t having to beg for funds. This is real economic ecology at play.

What about Meow Wolf’s non-profit side?We’ve dedicated $125,000 to DIY arts and music venues across the country. They are the type of spaces we come from: Warehouse space, under supported. Usually people in their 20s and 30s who are trying to create space for alternative ways of thinking and alternative ways of working with each other that doesn’t fit into the normal capitalist framework.

Ghost Ship [where 36 people died in a fire last December at an Oakland, California, warehouse art collective] is a good example, a turning point, for these spaces. Because of that tragedy, so many municipalities really cracked down on alternative art spaces, so we felt it was important for us to stand up for the type of environment we came from.

What about local non-profit work?Locally speaking, we have nonprofits in the public system that will receive support from our operations. We’re of Santa Fe, we’re from Santa Fe, and us, right now, this thing is going to give back. The community has supported us incredibly since we’ve opened and we’re excited that we can give back to that community.

Meow Wolf has sparked some ire from more traditional art markets. How do you respond to those that say Meow Wolf is trend over substance? This is nothing new for us. We’ve always sort of pushed the limits of that.

There’s not much room for the general population to take part in the experience of art … Mostly because the general population doesn’t have the funding to be able to support that economy … Whereas, what we produce is affordable enough for the general population and it is also relatable because you’re going inside of space and that is something everybody knows. Everybody can go inside a room and their brain starts to detect what that room is like.

It’s an accessible form. Because of that, it gets tagged with the term “entertainment.” Any art that is available to the general population gets pinned as entertainment. That’s another way for the art world to keep exclusivity on their stake. That’s fine. We can be called entertainment. That’s not a problem. We don’t really care. We know that imagination, that creativity, is being both consumed and sparked by our work. That’s what we care about. We care that there’s real creativity being experienced and real creativity being encouraged at our space. Whether that is art or entertainment, it doesn’t matter. We know what our product is and we are psyched about it.

Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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