Chaos Theory

A scruffy troupe of Santa Fe artists started a DIY gallery 11 years ago and called themselves Meow Wolf. They’re so popular now that Las Vegas has come calling. What gives?

WORDS Hunter Braithwaite
April 2019

On the outskirts of Santa Fe, far from the stucco adobe, the scent of burning piñon, the turquoise jewelry and the Georgia O’Keeffe posters filling the shop windows of downtown, you’ll find a ’70s-era defunct bowling alley. Inside that building stands a full-size Victorian house. You learn from the hosts that someone has gone missing from the house, so you wander through it looking for clues. The house is familiar, but not. It feels off, uncanny. In the kitchen, you open the refrigerator. Inside, instead of a milk carton and last night’s leftovers, you find a secret tunnel.

So begins House of Eternal Return, the immensely popular flagship attraction of Meow Wolf, Santa Fe’s against-the-grain arts collective-turned-entertainment powerhouse. A trippy blend of contemporary art, scrappy punk and rave aesthetics, with a narrative structure lifted from open-ended video games, House could be described as Burning Man meets MoMA meets Mom-and-Dad-are-out-of-town-let’s-get-a-keg.

Whatever the components, Meow Wolf has zeroed in on the zeitgeist and audiences are responding—in its first year (it opened in March 2016) the immersive storytelling experience drew some 400,000 visitors. Today, they’re planning variations in Denver, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. By any standards, it’s a wild business success. But if you know the backstory, it almost seems like an accident.

Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf cofounder and CEO, is the business brain behind the collective. “I’ve always played that role of putting pieces together,” he says from a couch off to the side of the lobby, fresh from trips to Vegas, Orlando and L.A. All traces of the bowling alley have been removed, though the geometric ’80s carpeting pays tribute to the building’s cheesy past. Kadlubek is inhaling a makeshift dinner of crackers and some sort of green juice energy shot. “When we were a collective, we’d open an art show. We’d have 30 people show up, and I’d be like, ‘Why don’t we have a cardboard box out that’s asking for donations?’ So I’d run to the back and get a cardboard box, and I’d paint it. And we’d get $100. Fifty of it would be spent on beer, and 50 would be spent on more paint.” These days there are a lot more zeros.

Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf cofounder and CEO

The story starts with Kadlubek sitting on a curb on Second Street, just south of Santa Fe’s historic downtown, eating a breakfast burrito. Though the town has more than 300 galleries—many of them clustered along rustic Canyon Road—the buttoned-down, bolo-tied cultural gatekeepers were not particularly interested in showing the work of young Santa Feans, especially the ephemeral, messy happenings being created by Kadlubek and his friends. As Meow Wolf cofounder Quinn Tincher puts it, they were “Santa Fe’s orphans of neglect.” But that February day in 2008, breakfast burrito in hand, Kadlubek saw a for-lease sign. He and nine friends pooled $1,000 for rent on the 900-square-foot storefront and opened a space for exhibitions and events. As for where the name came from: The group got together in artist Megan Maher’s living room and pulled Meow Wolf out of a hat.

Maher, who has known Kadlubek for 19 years, recalls the first show at the Second Street space. Quinn Tincher and Matt King—both of whom are still part of Meow Wolf (of the original 10 members, eight are still involved)—painted hallucinatory imagery all over the gallery. They brought in tree branches and mirrors and converted one room into a Twister-like board game. Not only was this at odds with the typical fare of Santa Fe’s galleries—turquoise and taupe landscapes; boardroom abstraction—but it also opened the door to artists working together, and to audiences of all ages.

This sense of wild collaboration and radical inclusion played a significant part in Meow Wolf’s local impact. “Everybody leaves Santa Fe after high school,” says Maher. “There was no 20-something crowd here when we started, there was no place for us to be.” So they decided to be the place to be. When they opened the doors, something happened that the orphans of neglect couldn’t have been prepared for. People showed up. And then more people. And then more.

A turning point came in 2011, when Meow Wolf premiered The Due Return at Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe. The 6,000-square-foot gallery space was filled with a two-story, 70-foot-long ship overgrown with alien flora and fungi. “It was very intense architecturally,” remembers Maher. The exhibition, which had interactive performance elements, was a critical and financial success, but it also involved round-the-clock work in difficult conditions. “It was very high stress,” Maher says. In its aftermath, members were still struggling to make ends meet. They had given up the gallery on Second Street. If Meow Wolf was going to last, they’d need a permanent home.

Christian Ristow's Becoming Human outside Meow Wolf's Santa Fe location

Though Santa Fe has no warehouses for artists to convert (it’s always been more of a trading post than a city of industry), Meow Wolf found the next best thing: a bowling alley that had been shuttered for a decade. The only catch was its million-dollar price tag. The solution came from an unlikely source: George R.R. Martin. The Game of Thrones creator, who has lived in Santa Fe since ’79, had started funding a series of cultural philanthropy initiatives, such as restoring the Jean Cocteau Cinema in the Railyard District. Kadlubek, who had briefly worked as the Cocteau’s marketing director, asked Martin if he wanted to give him 1.5 million bucks to open an art space. Martin toured the bowling alley, listened to the pitch for House of Eternal Return and bought in. He stipulated that if he cut them a check, they had to keep the bowling pin sign outside.

Today, the bowling pin is still there, emblazoned with “Meow Wolf,” but inside, the bowling alley is unrecognizable. A line of visitors wraps around the lobby on the snowy January day I visit, as teenagers order coffees and families browse the gift shop for Meow Wolf merch. In the David Loughridge Learning Center, named after a member whose early death brought the collective closer together, Congressman Ben Ray Luján is stumping to a group of local activists. I’m given a wristband and 3-D glasses, and directed through the doors into the darkness within, where before me appears that Victorian house.

Dylan Pommer's Cartoon room

Some say House of Eternal Return is like nothing you’ve seen before. They’re wrong. It’s everything you’ve seen before, rearranged. If you’ve ever watched a music video, Meow Wolf will make sense to you. Ditto if you’ve ever gone trick-or-treating. Or played a video game. If you’ve rummaged through an attic, or slept on a friend’s couch, or been stuck in the back seat of your grandparents’ car on some interminable road trip—it’ll all flood back. Perhaps because it’s the product of a collective, the experience taps into something universal, into our cultural lizard brain.

You need at least an hour to wander the house and all that waits through that refrigerator door. You first encounter a kind of interdimensional travel agency—a digital guide to destinations in the multiverse. Which is all to say, some corners of the ex-bowling alley resemble an ice planet, others a jungle, others Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. There is a mystery at the heart of House, something involving wormholes and disappearances and an omniscient being called the Anomaly. And if a visitor wants to follow that story, that’s great. If they want to just strum the laser harp instead, or climb into the half-school bus, or the Eyeball dome, that’s great, too. “We want people to be in control and not know what’s around the next corner,” Kadlubek says. “It’s up to them to decide if they even want to go around the next corner.”

In its popularity, Meow Wolf has found itself being lumped in with an ever-growing number of Instagrammable experiences—themed “museums” like the Museum of Pizza, say, or installations like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room. Detractors claim these attractions cash in on digestible art-lite setups that audiences can share (i.e., promote) across social media. Such criticisms do not keep Kadlubek up at night.

“I have a hard time with, ‘Is it art or not?’ I would rather have the question be, ‘Is it interesting? Is it challenging? Is it different?’”

Glowquarium room

What does trouble Kadlubek, now that Meow Wolf is expanding beyond its hometown, is raising the money—“Getting somebody out there who can write a $50 million check, who can write a $100 million check,” he says. Finding those people is never easy. It’s even less so when DIY chaos is your calling card. “The spontaneity is a detriment. It flies in the face of corporate thinking. Someone with that size of check, they’re looking for predictability,” says Kadlubek. And yet, Meow Wolf is building a rollercoaster. Literally.

It’s called the Kaleidoscape, and it opens this month in Denver’s Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park. “We call it the first art ride,” says Kadlubek. “It’s going to be a super psychedelic, multimedia experience. We really hope that amusement parks open up to the value of creativity and art.” After that opens, they’ll unveil a project in Las Vegas’ new Area 15 art and retail complex. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek commentary on consumerism. It’s sort of about the good intentions of corporate America, and yet the terrible ramifications that come from that. To me it’s like a psychedelic suburban sci-fi.” He refuses to say much more than that.

Over the decade since Kadlubek spotted that for-lease sign, Meow Wolf has grown from a 10-person collective to a company of 400. Of that number, the majority are involved with conceptualizing, designing and making immersive experiences like House of Eternal Return. Meanwhile, they are getting more heavily involved with outreach projects. At the on-site learning center, there are free art supplies for children, teens and disabled people, as well as classes on filmmaking, body painting, scriptwriting and more. “We’re a benefit corporation, so it’s really important for us to utilize our success and the money that we make for the sake of a better world, and a better community,” says Kadlubek.

At the heart of everything is Meow Wolf’s DIY ethic, which, from time to time, has led to sparks. For instance, there was the time when member Corvas Brinkerhoff showed up to a meeting with a written agenda—Meow Wolf’s first. It was promptly pulled from his hands, balled up and thrown in the trash. As to how that anarchy functions in a boardroom, Kadlubek shrugs. “It’s the chaos and the order, man. Meow Wolf is all about chaos and order. It’s the planned versus the unplanned, the designed versus the spontaneous, the predictable versus the unpredictable, and they all have value.”


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