Meow Wolf, depending on what you’re referring to, is a collective, a business, a social group, a physical space for creating and educating, and an immersive art experience. What Meow Wolf is doing is nothing short of fantastical.
In a former bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico, they’re building a Victorian house, and within that house they’re making rifts and creating explorable alternate dimensions. What at first might strike you as a typical family home reveals gateways to other worlds — a cave system with a glowing mastodon skeleton through the fireplace, a Star Trek inspired tourist agency through the fridge, a funky treehouse forest with mushroom drums.
Over these final days leading up to the exhibit’s opening, almost 100 artists have been working to finish the work on this surreal environment. “Carpenters are building elaborate pieces of CNC routed furniture. Our tech team is wiring low-voltage devices built around Arduinos and Raspberry Pi 2’s for audience interactivity. […] Tons of people are sawing wood, sculpting Skratch (an air-drying sculpting medium), or painting walls. It is all creativity all the time. A total daily dream,” says Vince Kadlubek, co-founder and CEO of Meow Wolf.
This extraordinary house, the “House of Eternal Return,” is opening to the public at Meow Wolf on March 17th. Along with this permanent exhibit, Meow Wolf will also feature a gallery, on-site makerspace, and gift shop where its artists can sell their goods.
Making a Space for Themselves
The story of how Meow Wolf founded and came by their permanent space is an interesting one. The group tells their own story best in a documentary that they produced (and that I encourage you to watch below).
It is a story that in many ways has been defined and shaped by spaces, which is fitting for a group that’s made its name creating environments. And in the beginning, it was defined by a lack of space.
The Santa Fe of 2008 was a tough place to be young and creative. The art scene was exclusive and music venues were almost non-existent. A group of friends realized that, if they all pitched in $75 a month, they could lease an empty retail space to serve as music venue, art gallery, and workshop. They formed a collective, picked two words out of two hats, and became Meow Wolf.
Meow Wolf decided to make their space and their collective radically inclusive, meaning that anyone could come in and do their work without having to ask permission or explain themselves. The results of that were these maximalist collaborative art exhibits that covered the entire space. Kadlubek makes this intensive collaboration sound easy:
We leave so much room for creative freedom in our process. Creative and aesthetic decisions happen by individual artists, and are then communicated to the group. The group is expected to say “Yes” first, and the individual is expected to compromise elements of vision according to the will of the group.
It is just communication. It is openness, and it is acceptance that we are all part of a collective.
Meow Wolf built off the walls, they built forts, and soon they built a reputation which lead to exhibits like “GEODEcadent II” at the Linda Durham Contemporary Art Gallery and “The Due Return” at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, which was a pilgrimage ship slipped out of time, with decks and quarters, and a story about the crew that could be revealed through exploration. It wasn’t what you’d expect to see in a museum, but the people came.
“Most people do not know this is something they want,” Kadlubek explained, “I mean, people love amusement parks and haunted houses, but nothing quite as artsy or challenging as what we are presenting. So audiences aren’t really prepared for the level of psychedelia and bizarreness that is at Meow Wolf. But luckily we also don’t have to introduce the experience to people. All they hear is “Oh, it is cool, you just have to go see it” and they will. And once they are in the exhibit, the curiosity and exploration takes over.”
Paying Artists, But Not on Commission
“The Due Return” proved that there was an audience for this kind of immersive art experience. It got the group a lot of national attention. They were invited to do shows in other cities, but working on commission to create temporary exhibits wasn’t sustainable as a business model.
Part of what Meow Wolf is trying to achieve with their permanent location and “The House of Eternal Return,” is a business model that breaks free from the commission model more common in the art world. Meow Wolf hopes to create something that can employ artists regularly. In his TED Talk, Kadlubek explains that “We’re not just trying to create a new art exhibit, we’re trying to create a whole new model for how artists can create work and get paid for it.” Right now, Meow Wolf employs nearly 100 artists (about half are full-time, half are part-time) and pays a living wage. By using an admissions-based business model they can treat their art for what it is: an experience, and not commodity.
Meow Wolf is still a collective, but the transition to having a business means both that there’s a more sustainable stream of money for Meow Wolf artists to continue making their art, and that the group must be less free form than it was at its inception. “There is a real respect for the art, the artist, and the employer because we all know how incredible it is to be paid for work. The culture is much more structured, less radical in some ways, and more driven by goals and accomplishment. These are all debatably positive or negative,” Kadlubek said when asked about the transition.
Meow Wolf and “The House of Eternal Return” opens March 17th, 2016, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This opening marks the beginning of a new era for Meow Wolf, and a new business model for artistic employment, as well.