An artist whose quirky Space Owl features prominently in Meow Wolf’s wildly successful interactive art exhibit is suing the company and its founder for Visual Artist Rights Act violations and copyright infringement.
Lauren Adele Oliver says in her lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court that the art collective convinced her to install a sculpture of Space Owl in its House of Eternal Return by offering her membership in the group and an “artist revenue share.”
But after the exhibit became a multimillion-dollar enterprise — thanks in part to Space Owl, which she says “put a friendly face on this new weird, sometimes intimating art experience” — the group backpedaled and offered her a choice between selling the character outright for pennies on the dollar or removing it without any additional compensation.
Attorney Jesse A. Boyd said Oliver is looking to be “compensated fairly” for her contribution to the success of the House of Eternal Return — which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. He said Oliver is seeking “more than a million dollars.”
Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek — who is also named a defendant in the lawsuit — referred questions to Meow Wolf Vice President of Marketing Didi Bethurum, who said in an email Tuesday the company is “disappointed by these baseless allegations.”
“Meow Wolf is committed to supporting artists and providing fair treatment to every person we collaborate with,” Bethurum wrote. “These claims run completely counter to our culture and we will vigorously defend against them through the legal process.”
According to her complaint, Oliver created Space Owl — an owl-like alien— in 2006. In 2012, after she had created a narrative around it, several digital versions of it and displayed it in a local art show, Meow Wolf approached her about incorporating it into House of Eternal Return.
Oliver said she did not pursue the idea until the collective approached her again in 2015 and asked her to install her climate change-themed art project Ice Station Quellette featuring Space Owl in the House of Eternal Return.
“The installation was a filthy, full-time job involving months of late nights, grueling, dangerous work and the expenditure of Oliver’s own money,” the lawsuit says. “Oliver put every ounce of love and energy she had into the installation … with the result being an angelic, 13-foot tall Space Owl, which observers describe as alive, sentient and real.”
It soon became clear the House of Eternal Return was going to be a success, and Space Owl was a “huge hit” with visitors, according to the lawsuit.
“Oliver trusted Meow Wolf would make good on their promises and work with her to formalize a mechanism by which she could share in Meow Wolf’s extraordinary success,” the lawsuit says.
“However, over the course of 2017 and 2018 the language Meow Wolf used to describe itself and its relationship with member artists began to shift. At some point the ‘Artist Revenue Share’ began to be called a ‘Bonus Program’ amounting to Kadlubek making personal, arbitrary decisions about who got what.”
Space Owl was used in the trailer for the collective’s “self-made puff-piece documentary,” according to the lawsuit, and in 2020 was the image used to represent Meow Wolf in an Artnet story “The 100 Defining Works of the Decade” which featured Meow Wolf as No. 25.
“Beyonce (#24) and Banksy (#23) got to see their name on the list — but not Oliver,” the lawsuit says.
Oliver contends she tried to formalize her relationship with the art collective but after getting “the runaround” for nearly a year, Kadlubek offered her a choice between selling the sculpture and licensing rights for one “unreasonably low” payment or removing it with no additional compensation beyond the barely $2,000 in revenue shares she had received at that point.
“Oliver’s ability to realize the potential of … Space Owl has been thwarted,” the lawsuit says, “while at the same time her work has been exploited to enrich a handful of lucky new millionaires.”
Oliver’s lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages and “conveyance” of her ownership interests in the company.