Written by Kelsey McGrath, Hosted by Jason Epperson, Storytelling by Abigail Trabue

What is a “Meow Wolf”? Some have said it’s a “psychedelic funhouse.” Some liken it to “Burning Man,” the outdoor music festival. Others say it’s an “intergalactic, interdimensional travel agency.” While most have no idea what we’re talking about. 

When you arrive at Meow Wolf’s flagship location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you’re greeted by towering metal sculptures of a robot with a daisy. The building’s facade is unassuming. A rehabbed bowling alley, it maintains an exterior that echoes the conventional stucco and architecture style of the southwest. Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” is anything but conventional.

“Becoming Human” – Christian Ristow

Santa Fe Roots

Meow Wolf began as a group of friends in the early 2000s. Painters. Sculptors. Performers. Dreamers. Poets. They worked day jobs and spent all their free time and money creating. Santa Fe’s gallery and studio arts scene, although being the third largest market in the country, offered no clear place for their eclectic work or wild ambitions. “We felt like there was this apparatus of gate-keeping that was keeping us out of the art world,” said co-founder Vince Kadlubek.

In the 2018 documentary, “Meow Wolf: Origin Story,” he retells sitting on a curb, eating a breakfast burrito across the street from his childhood bowling alley. And it was for sale. After some quick math and imagination, Vince brought the idea to the group. 9 people committed $100 dollars a month to rent the new space. They were Emily Montoya, Benji Geary, Matt King, Quinn Tincher, Sean Di Ianni, Caity Kennedy, Megan Maher, Corvas Brinkerhoff, and Vince Kadlubek.

Thus, Meow Wolf had a home.

But it didn’t have a name yet. At an initial house meeting, the founders threw ideas into a hat and drew slips of paper to create two word phrases. “Meow Wolf” was suggested, and no one bought it. No one understood it. But in the end, the vote was unanimous. “Meow Wolf” found its name.

This group of artists, hungry to create, began painting, began crafting, and when they ran out of space to paint, they began stapling things to the walls. Meow Wolf became a collective. Founded on the idea of radical inclusivity, they set the precedent for how the company is run. The group of creators met regularly and helped each other execute seemingly impossible ideas. This space was their playground, their laboratory, and their gallery. They held punk rock shows, DJ and circus performances, colorful art exhibits, and installations of any and all mediums.

The first exhibition in the space, “Bio Neuro Orb,” conceptualized by co-founders Emily Montoya and Benji Geary, was made completely out of garbage. “It was like a treasure hunt for us,” Geary said. They used everyday materials in weird and interesting ways with lights and music and even a fishbowl full of jell-o to create an interactive experience for their audience. This was a turning point for the collective, as the creators began to see the power of their art as an interactive experience. 

Vince Kadlubek wanted more for the group. His vision for Meow Wolf was bigger than anyone could imagine. However, his suggestions of structure and hierarchy brought tension between him and his anarchic comrades and he decided to take his leave.

Montoya and Geary later collaborated on another experiential project called “GEODEcadent” in 2010, which featured a geodesic dome composed of “vacuumed space” holding together post-1950’s furniture and memorabilia. This project had components of interactivity and the exhibition was noticed by Santa Fe gallerist Linda Durham who invited it to be remounted in her space, “GEODEcadent II.” “People need to see this,” said Durham. “This is new art.” Meow Wolf’s tendril-like reach was beginning to grow.

After a few months, Vince Kadlubek was encouraged to return to Meow Wolf by his new found best friend David Loughridge, both aching for community in their town. Upon return to Meow Wolf, they produced the play “The Moon is to Live On” with the collective. This was the force that unified a splintered collective following the strains of their success. The play was a catalyst for establishing amicable structure among a group of creative anarchists. The spirit of Meow Wolf became clear: it was in the people, not the space.

Dreaming Bigger

In 2011, Meow Wolf was invited by the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe to create a semi-permanent installation. in their Muñoz Waxman Gallery. “The Due Return,” was an interdimensional time and space traveling ship that integrated interactive multimedia, performance, literature, and sculpture. This was the first time the team had worked with technology and began leaning into the leadership and execution structures they’d previously created. Vince, David, and the co-founders played pivotal roles in the planning and execution of such a mammoth task. 

The artists raised $50,000 for the project, all of which went to materials. The ship itself had multiple rooms, all of which encouraged interaction. With the integration of story and technology, participants could follow along with the narrative or simply explore the floors of the ship. There were passages to crawl through, light shows, places to sit and touch, monitors for navigation, and so much more.

Needless to say, the installation was a smash hit. Critics raved about the size and uniqueness of the project. It engaged 25,000 people in three months. After Vince asked for a suggested donation a few weeks in, “The Due Return” accumulated $125,000 for the artists. This was the moment of Meow Wolf’s move from collective of friends to business. 

After hundreds of hours of discussion, the group decided to pursue multiple, smaller semi permanent exhibits across the country, in Miami, New York, Chicago, and more, but nothing proved fiscally or culturally sustainable. With Meow Wolf split into factions, it looked like the collective was nearing an end. It began to dissipate into different ideas of what it was.

David Loughridge was the singular, cohesive force of the group. He was constantly trying to gather people to keep the Meow Wolf flame alive, to no avail. Throughout his life, David had had Bipolar disorder and often sought out treatment. A talented photographer, he created an exhibit featuring his photographs and journal entries from when he was in treatment. Guests were encouraged to interact with the photos, drawing on them and adding their own creations.

After receiving a hefty, body altering treatment for his mental illness, David caught pneumonia and slipped into a coma. The collective immediately came together to visit him. He died 24 hours later. David’s death rekindled a spark of creation within the group. They wanted to honor David’s vision for Meow Wolf and to come together again and they were stronger than ever.

The House of Eternal Return

The artists began dreaming and conceptualizing of what this project would be. “The House of Eternal Return” was born. Described as an “Intergalactic, interdimensional travel agency.” The story of the installation follows the Selig family in Mendocino California. They’re a family of supernatural artists, musicians, and inventors that  are so creatively powerful that their abilities actually break time and space which creates the exhibition and that exhibition is a manifestation of the family’s thoughts, and memories, and dreams. Everything in the house and its supernatural backyard relates to the narrative. 

It starts out as a Victorian mansion, painted pale yellow complete with a manicured front lawn, a white picket fence and a mailbox out front. There’s a walkway and family portraits hung up in the stairway. But you begin to notice something’s a little… off. The second floor bathroom is a little… wavy. All the family’s technology is glitched out. And when you open the refrigerator door, you can step in, and when you do, you are transported to another world.

The flagship location would also include The David Loughridge Loughlin Learning Center; an hommage to their late friend and a free arts education center for kids. It gives “kids of all ages” an opportunity to learn about art, music making, origami, and technology after engaging with the work.

The 33,000 sq ft “Silva Lanes” bowling alley was for sale and they wanted to buy it. Writing down a list of names of people they knew who could help, George R.R. Martin made the list. since he lived in Santa Fe. Eeveryone laughed, dismissing the possibility. But there was something to it. Vince had met George once and plucked up the courage to reach out to him with a proposal, complete with the science fiction and fantasy plot that George would have to love.

The proposal was originally $300,000 to buy and renovate the “Silva Lanes” property. After the building was inspected, the total came out to be $1.8 million. Although Martin balked at the price, he agreed to back the project. However, he wanted $140,000 in insurance money at the 12 o’clock hour. Not knowing what to do, Vince called David’s parents and asked if they would be willing to invest in Meow Wolf’s future. Knowing their son’s passion and dream for this odd collective, they agreed and “The House of Eternal Return” was a GO.

The artists were able to quit theirjobs and make art full time for their first ever permanent installation. “[It was] a constant all day every day exercise in just rolling with it,” said co-founder Kaity Kennedy. 

At the last minute, they realized that they needed to reconfigure the entire electrical system, which meant raising $20,000 more dollars for an electrical engineer and $20,000 more dollars for contractors. Vince was the one who fundraised the costs single handedly. In the end, “The House of Eternal Return” cost a total of 2.7 million, with Vince raising all the difference while the artists were building. 

Over 400 people worked on the project between artists, contractors, and volunteers. After a year and a half of endless 14 to 16 hour days, the installation was set to be opened on March 17th, 2016. 

Now, five years lates, Meow Wolf is booming. In early 2021, they opened another permanent exhibit in Area 15 of Las Vegas. “Sponsored” by Willie Nelson, “Omega Mart” is Meow Wolf’s take on grocery stores. Much like “The House of Eternal Return,” it seems like a regular grocery store, but something is just a bit off. Offering eclectic items for sale such as “Tattoo Chicken,” “What is butter?” and “Whale Song” deodorant. But Omega Mart takes attention to detail and technology to the next level. With a deeply interactive narrative component, visitors can explore the fictional offices of “Dream Corp,” answering emails, zoom calls, and watching training videos. But it’s not only office play. Omega Mart has three different slides, a projection cave, a mirror room with a light show and endless spaces to explore. The refrigerator door opens here, too…

Photo by Kate Russell

Meow Wolf Today

Meow Wolf continues to keep things radical in what they do and how they do it. Classified as a B Corporation, they are committed to working with local artists and environments to center a symbiotic relationship when they come into a place to make art. They’re continually finding ways to honor their anarchic beginnings while participating in capitalism and making a difference in the communities they serve. 

Their latest permanent space has been announced for Denver and is set to open in Fall of 2021. At 90,000 sq. ft., this will be Meow Wolf’s largest installation yet. With four floors of creativity and over 110 Denver artists, this installation promises to be the most intricate, accessible, and magical Meow Wolf yet.

Love Art installations? Check out Chicago Sculpture. Or are you touring New Mexico? Stop by The International UFO Museum and Research Center!