A high-ranking executive at one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates took the reins Tuesday as CEO of Santa Fe-based arts and entertainment company Meow Wolf.
Jose Tolosa, 46, spent 14 years at ViacomCBS, where since 2017 he was chief transformation officer of a company that includes the CBS Networks, Paramount Pictures, MTV and VH1, Nickelodeon, Showtime, the CW and more than 40 media outlets.
Meow Wolf has operated under a three co-CEO structure since company co-founder Vince Kadlubek stepped down in October 2019.
Meow Wolf leadership now returns to a single CEO heading an enterprise with three attractions attracting 1.7 million visitors.
Tolosa said he will be a COVID-era CEO — splitting time with his family in New York and working in Santa Fe and Meow Wolf’s other two sites in Denver and Las Vegas, Nev.
Tolosa has risen in the ranks at ViacomCBS since 2008 and was involved in the merger of the two media conglomerates. He had not heard of Meow Wolf when a corporate recruiter first approached him an unspecified number of months ago.
The initial Meow Wolf pitch intrigued him. Tolosa first visited Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart in Las Vegas, Nev., which opened in February, then the House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, and he was at the September opening of Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station in Denver.
“They are amazing, extraordinary, mind-blowing,” Tolosa said in a 25-minute phone interview. “I was so impressed with how they draw you into the normal environment and throw you back into a world of confusion and getting you away from reality. I was mesmerized with the artists.”
Tolosa said he was willing to make the move because he saw the potential in the company, which now employs about 1,000.
“Their mission is extremely powerful. If you talk to the artists, you truly believe in their mission,” he said. “I was very impressed with their foundation and how they dream very big and make it a reality.”
Tolosa has a simple axiom to rationalize leaving a top five media company for Meow Wolf.
“Yes, the company is small today relative to ViacomCBS, but to me it’s about where you are going in the future, not where you are today,” he said. “There is exciting potential for growth.”
Meow Wolf has been tight-lipped about any future expansions, only saying a couple of potential cities are in play but no new sites have been nailed down. This is the first time in at least six years that no new major projects are in the works.
“We are absolutely looking to expand into new markets and spread our wings a bit, but there is nothing to announce,” said Kadlubek, who remains one of six company board members as well as a senior consultant.
Tolosa has met with all six Meow Wolf founders from 2008, the current management and some artists.
“I need to come in and listen and learn,” Tolosa said. “At the end of 90 days, I will have a much clearer vision. We want to have as much impact on people as we can. I don’t see Meow Wolf as three pieces of real estate. There is an opportunity to expand this beyond the four walls.”
Tolosa was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is a graduate of Harvard Business School with an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in finance from Georgetown University. Early in his career, he was a principal at the Parthenon Group, a financial services firm, and senior vice president and chief operating officer at HNMA Finance Co.
At Viacom, Tolosa served as senior vice president of strategy and business development, then executive vice president in the same areas before rising to chief operating officer and executive vice president of global strategies.
He took on the newly created chief transformation officer position in 2017, a role he continued as Viacom and CBS merged in 2019 with Tolosa reporting directly to ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish.
“Jose has an extensive résumé in the media world and storytelling world,” Kadlubek said. “Most important, he is someone who has incredible intelligence around strategizing for a big vision anchored to a social mission and integrating all the component parts of what makes Meow Wolf special. We were looking for someone who could integrate all the parts of the company and someone who is authentic and genuine and capable of running a large company.”
Meow Wolf started in 2008 as a collection of nonestablishment artists whose first large-scale venture was The Due Return, a more than 70-foot-long, two-story ship exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Arts. In 2012, Meow Wolf staged a precursor of its Las Vegas Omega Mart in a St. Michael’s Drive storefront.
Kadlubek became CEO in 2014 as Meow Wolf positioned itself for the opening of its interactive exhibition House of Eternal Return on Rufina Circle in March 2016 with financial backing of Game of Thrones originator George R.R. Martin. The Santa Fe site became an instant international sensation.
“As we grew, we knew we needed expertise from established industries,” Kadlubek said. “It was a huge value add to bring people in who could accomplish these huge projects.”
Carl Christensen, with a background at Goldman Sachs, became chief financial officer in January 2018, the same month the company announced its first expansions to Las Vegas and Denver. Jim Ward, with more than a decade at LucasFilm, became chief content officer in January 2019, quickly followed by Disney veteran Ali Rubinstein as chief creative officer.
Meow Wolf took an unorthodox route later that year to replace Kadlubek by creating an Office of the Chief Executive Officers with Rubinstein, Christensen and Ward serving as co-chief executive officers.
The trio shepherded the company through the construction of the massive exhibitions in Las Vegas and Denver plus announcing expansions to Phoenix and Washington, D.C., that have since been canceled.
“I don’t think we had a time frame of what is best for the company at the time,” Kadlubek said about how long the three-CEO structure would last. “We were rather focused on delivering Meow Wolf Las Vegas and Meow Wolf Denver. They did it with a pandemic. Now that we have Denver open, we are looking at the next phase of Meow Wolf. We had it in our sights when we knew the Las Vegas and Denver projects were going to open. It was when we saw how successful Denver was going that this process [to hire a CEO] picked up steam.”
Ward left Meow Wolf in April. Christensen and Rubinstein have returned to their original roles.
“Ali, Carl and Jim have been instrumental in building Meow Wolf into a strong, strategic business for the past two years and we could not be more grateful for their leadership,” Christopher Sobecki, chairman of Meow Wolf’s board, said in a news release. “We are excited for the new focus Jose will bring to the company as we continue to take Meow Wolf into new dimensions.”
Meow Wolf from the beginning has gone through continuing evolution from temporary exhibits, to the House of Eternal Return to out-of-state expansion.
“It’s a pendulum,” Kadlubek said. “We have big ideas and have to figure out how to execute them. Now we are more focused and strategic about the things we do.”