Take a kernel from the Children’s Museum, a wrinkle from an Explora science exhibit and a seam from Burning Man, and one has the inceptions of what Meow Wolf is hoping to create in Santa Fe.
But the exhibit that is being developed, designed, programmed, manufactured, cut and cobbled together by the arts group in a 35,000-square-foot former bowling alley is perhaps unlike what has ever come before.
The House of Eternal Return, an electronics- and sensory-heavy exhibit, will feature a Victorian house with passageways, forests, caves, treehouses, bridges, a light cloud, a sideways bus, an arcade and workshop spaces.
As planned, visitors will be primed with lasers, smoke, touch sensors, color, story and fantasy.
“The end result is something no one ever imagined at the beginning — an immersive art experience made possible by many, many visions. It’s not a corporate entertainment experience. It’s unique, it’s authentic, it’s something we designed,” said Sean Di Ianni, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and St. John’s College who serves as the design and construction manager for the project.
For Meow Wolf, which started as an eight-person collaborative pushing small installations in several cities, the exhibit is high profile and risky. The group, for one, is now structured as a for-profit startup company and has lined up grant money as well as investors who have committed $25,000 each in exchange for future returns.
With 65 paid workers, Meow Wolf will spend at least $1.5 million before The House of Eternal Return exhibit opens early next year. The group is spending $100,000 a month on payroll and has not yet earned a penny from gate fees.
“It’s a high-wire act, for sure,” said Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf founder and chief executive officer.
For Santa Fe, the experiment is a bold example of what has become a seldom-realized buzz phrase: the creative economy. Just how successful Meow Wolf is could help the city set the tone for economic development projects as it tries to appeal to younger entrepreneurs and diversify an economy heavily reliant on government jobs.
But whatever happens with the 2016 opening, the project’s energy, money, job training and buzz is already rippling through midtown Santa Fe, as dozens of young adults with backgrounds in art, design, technology, manufacturing, media and computing have committed to Meow Wolf, hoping project success can translate into a career.
The creative startup
Jill Shroeder, owner of Grayduck Gallery in Austin, recently walked through the the exhibit at the old Silva Lanes on Rufina Circle.
“It kind of blew my mind, really,” she said.
She added there are art collectives in Austin doing exhibits or stage events, but she isn’t aware of any group with as many dimensions as Meow Wolf, with its manufacturing, patented products and online gift shop.
“Other collectives are doing some of what Meow Wolf is doing, but their whole business plan seems far reaching,” she said.
The revenue projections through the next decade call for an average of 100,000 visitors annually, at $10 each, with discounts for children and school groups. Meow Wolf also is tapping into licensed products and grants for educational programming to help sustain growth. The structure is more akin to an independent film or Broadway production than a community arts organization.
“The art world doesn’t have a business model that supports what Meow Wolf is trying to do,” Kadlubek said. “We had to figure out a business model.”
Meow Wolf was one of the groups chosen for a new creative startup initiative in 2014 that helped with management expertise, networking, fundraising and business development. Kadlubek and other Meow Wolf group leaders won the competition, which was scored by other executives. The $25,000 prize helped with the launch of this exhibit, said Tom Aageson, executive director of the initiative, Santa Fe-based Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship.
“They came out as judged by investors as the top company,” he said. “They fit right smack in the middle of the creative economy, and they’re making a business.”
“They have the entrepreneurial spirit,” he added.
For instance, one member of the group recently won a citywide business competition for developing a unique type of plaster used on the Eternal Return project and hopes to launch that into a separate business. Kadlubek last month gave an Albuquerque TED Talk on creative startups.
“They don’t stop, they don’t worry about this bump in the road,” Aageson said. “That’s what we need in Santa Fe, and we need to foster it.”
A market opportunity
The first investor was Bruce Loughridge, the owner of an asphalt company in Albuquerque and the father of Kadlubek’s close friend and former Meow Wolf member David Loughridge, who died of a heart attack. The second investor was David Kantor, a Harvard graduate with an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who advises the group on business strategy.
Wilson Scanlan, who co-owns Verve Gallery on Marcy Street with his father and is a board member of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, also is a financial backer.
Scanlan has three young children and remembers going to the Meow Wolf exhibit Due Return, which saw 25,000 visitors over three months in 2011 at the Center for Contemporary Arts. It was the success of that spaceship-like adventure that propelled the core Meow Wolf group to move ahead with its grand vision rising today.
“I took my kids over there and we fell in love with it,” Scanlan said. “We probably went six or seven times, and they still ask about it.”
Even though Meow Wolf is targeting a younger audience with The House of Eternal Return — especially school-age groups — Scanlan said it’s going to appeal to all ages — and he is already planning a birthday party for one of his children inside the exhibit.
“I hope to make my money back, maybe even make a little bit, but I’m really just a believer in what they are trying to do. For Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico. It’s really intriguing.”
Kadlubek and the mayor
The Santa Fe City Council is considering giving Meow Wolf a $60,000 economic development grant, which has raised some eyebrows because of Kadlubek’s close relationship with Mayor Javier Gonzales.
Kadlubek is unabashed about his support for the mayor, whom he calls an inspiration for pushing ahead with a mayoral campaign despite obstacles — and winning. But he says the grant application, which is working its way through committee, should be evaluated on its own merits.
“There are always naysayers about what is possible,” Kadlubek said about both himself and Gonzales. Kadlubek is a Santa Fe native who grew up in the working-class Bellamah neighborhood and went to Santa Fe High School. Both his parents taught at Capshaw Middle School.
It was Gonzales’ commitment to a more youth-friendly city that kept Kadlubek in Santa Fe. “There was always a question of whether we’d be in Santa Fe or not. Albuquerque, Denver, L.A., New Orleans were all on our short list at the time,” he said.
City Councilor Signe Lindell, who is co-sponsoring the resolution to provide funding for the project, said the professional services agreement sets “very, very high goals” for Meow Wolf to meet.
The contract calls for Meow Wolf to create “high-tech training on digital fabrication,” an online gift shop for local products, 20 internship opportunities and “a minimum of six patent applications,” though the language of the contract was still being ironed out, according to emails obtained by The New Mexican.
But it was concerns raised by Councilor Joseph Maestas that forced a delay in the agreement as the city changed the proposal from a straight grant to a contract for services.
“I’m concerned that the city could be violating the anti-donation clause of our state constitution,” Maestas wrote in a Sept. 15 email to City Manager Brian Snyder. “Should we, instead of providing cash, develop a professional services agreement to provide that anti-donation protection and ensure the city receives the economic development services listed in the resolution.”
The New Mexican obtained the email through a public records request.
Project supporter Aageson doesn’t think meeting the job goals will be difficult. There are hundreds of students in Santa Fe studying art and design at its college campuses, including St. John’s College, the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
A credible celebrity
Supporters see Meow Wolf as a chance to not just invigorate a neighborhood but put Santa Fe on the map for a high-tech art.
That is already taking hold in the buildings around Rufina Street where The House of Eternal Return is evolving. This month, the building and parking lot will welcome a giant robot designed by Taos artist Christian Ristow, known for large art sculptures displayed at events such as the Coachella music festival.
The exhibit building itself is better known for its years hosting bowling leagues and birthday parties. After the business closed, the property stood vacant for six years until it was purchased early in January by fantasy-fiction writer George R.R. Martin, who is leasing the space to Meow Wolf.
Kadlubek, who always nurtures two days of facial-hair growth, said he met Santa Fe resident Martin, whose work is the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones, when Kadlubek worked at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, the theater in the Santa Fe Railyard that the writer purchased and reinvigorated with film screenings, lectures and other events.
Martin also acquired property on Camino Alire that used to house a small school, which he has converted into artist housing. Kadlubek figured there was nothing to lose in asking the self-made millionaire about the Silva Lanes property at 1435 Rufina Circle.
Martin has not put any money into the Meow Wolf exhibit, but he is replacing the roof, parking lot and entire HVAC system — some $2 million in upgrades. Meow Wolf has a 10-year lease for the space with $156,000 in annual payments.
Kadlubek added that the relationship with Martin brought credibility to the project, making the pitch to investors easier.
Meow Wolf has its offices and a fabrication shop in a building across the street from the exhibit space, and it has a huge prop shop a block down Rufina, where crews are assembling trees and animals before they begin moving them into the exhibit this month.
The project has created a kind of artistic compound in an older neighborhood that is now seeing new life with taco stands, a Java Joe’s coffee shop, the Wise Fool New Mexico circus arts collective and a brewery. The new Greenhouse Grocery co-op also plans to open on Rufina Street next year.
The artists, tech workers
Mat Crimmins, one of the Meow Wolf artists, was spending his time in the prop shop recently, a warehouse building along Rufina Street called “The Big Pink,” engineering a mastodon.
A sculptor who moved from San Francisco, Crimmins was working at Shidoni Foundry when he went to an informational meeting about Meow Wolf. The stipend he receives for working on the upcoming exhibit allows him to pursue his own projects.
“I’m in charge of the caves,” he said, standing under the giant replica of what will be the mastodon’s rib cage. The work includes syncing the ribs to electronic circuitry with a goal of having visitors play the ribs like a marimba.
“There are a lot of artists who come up with these crazy ideas and can’t facilitate them,” he said. “Meow Wolf has this tech team who can work them out.”
Another feature will be the long stalactites that hang from the cave with 48 different musical tones. “You’ll have the ability to have a complete musical experience in there,” he said.
Because the exhibit is considered permanent, it has to meet fire and structural codes, and there are permits and inspections that result in stops and starts.
‘This is a fingers-crossed process,” he said. “When you have obstacles, there will be people here to help you solve the problems.”
As one of the go-to problem-solvers, Sheldon Bess, 24, might be at the cutting edge of what Meow Wolf is trying to accomplish. The Albuquerque resident studied electronic arts at The University of New Mexico and is working on some of the digital fabrication, a skill that combines architecture, design, physics and art.
Using software and a laptop, Bess designs pieces or entire components, such as furniture, and then watches the manufacturing as the products are pressed from machines.
His work includes mounts for pieces in the exhibit as well as hardware and furniture.
“Right now I am laser-cutting a bunch of crystals from a skylight company that donated their plastics to us,” he said. The plexi-like cuttings will act as prisms and be used as wall clusters inside the cave.
Technician Emily Markwiese graduated from Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe and tried college, but she wasn’t happy there. When she discovered Meow Wolf, she was working at a coffee shop.
With an interest in writing, she joined the narrative team but quickly enlisted in tech, where she is soldering circuits and lights for a forest canopy that will hopefully create a firefly effect.
She hopes to stay on after the exhibit as one of the educators to help explain to school groups what went into the exhibit.
Lessons from Vegas
Chris Beran, 22, a Portland, Ore., resident who is studying photography at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, is learning to build circuits at Meow Wolf, programming each to operate remotely through a media server.
It’s trial-and-error work, and some connections have to be rerouted from a laptop. Beran signed onto the project as an unpaid intern but now gets a stipend to help with college. “Every day is a new challenge,” he said. “But it doesn’t feel like work.”
Like others on the project, Beran is hoping to stay on with Meow Wolf after the launch in Santa Fe and move toward exhibits in larger cities where the number of visitors can increase tenfold or more. Kadlubek points out to investors that an immersive exhibit at the City Museum in St. Louis draws 700,000 visitors a year at $10 a pop.
There is interest in places such as the Fremont East District in downtown Las Vegas, Nev., which is being promoted as an urban arts destination. In late September, Meow Wolf brought a dozen members and a scaled-down version of its exhibit to the Life is Beautiful Festival there.
The energy from the Las Vegas event is still invigorating two members of the tech team, Corvas Brinkerhoff and Jake Snider. Brinkerhoff is the chief tech officer and an original Meow Wolf member, and he comes with experience in exhibition, multimedia design and live entertainment.
During the three-day Las Vegas event, “we learned our ideas were good, they really worked,” Snider said. “We had tens of thousands of people coming through our rooms.” Snider and Brinkerhoff watched and talked with people about their experiences and will continue making adjustments with touch sensors, lights and fog.
Brinkerhoff said Las Vegas residents are used to big productions, and the smaller, intimate space of the exhibit rooms that offer more individualized experiences might still be the unknown surrounding the work.
Kadlubek said he feels confident the group can produce new exhibits about once every three years.
Markwiese hopes so. “I’ve never worked longer or harder on a job before,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine working at a restaurant again. It’s like walking into a dream — there’s nothing like it.”
Contact Bruce Krasnow at firstname.lastname@example.org.