This 140-Person Art Collective Is Pursuing an Alternative Model for Artists to Make a Living
Since the Santa Fe-based art collective Meow Wolf opened its permanent installation, the House of Eternal Return, in March 2016, the project has been an unmitigated success in terms of viewership and profits. Housed in a 20,000-square-foot former bowling alley, the sprawling interactive artwork welcomed 400,000 visitors in its first year—nearly four times as many as expected—and brought in $6 million in revenue for the collective’s more than 100 members.
One of the most popular attractions in Santa Fe, the House of Eternal Return invites visitors into an elaborate Victorian house that is experiencing rifts in space-time. Open up the refrigerator or a closet door and get swept away into a new environment, each one designed by different artists of the Meow Wolf collective. There is no set route to follow and you can climb on, crawl through, and touch everything in sight. Tickets to enter the fun-house-like installation cost $20 for adults (on par with admission to a New York museum), with discounted rates available for New Mexico residents, children, senior citizens, and the military.
The installation’s sci-fi narrative, lawless abandon, and production quality have captured the imaginations of viewers, while its success has caught the art world’s attention. Could this be a sustainable, alternative avenue for artists to collaborate and make a living outside of traditional art world models?
Meow Wolf was founded as an art collective by Emily Montoya, Corvas Brinkeroff, Sean Di Ianni, Vince Kadlubek, Caity Kennedy and Matt King in Santa Fe in 2008, with solid DIY roots. “When this started we were all in our early 20s,” recounts King, as we meet on a mound of artificial grass within the House of Eternal Return, with Kennedy and one of Meow Wolf’s current art directors, Chadney Everett. (In addition to being founding members, Kennedy and King are now Chief Creative Officers in the collective; Everett joined Meow Wolf in 2015.) “Most of us didn’t go to college, we rented a dirty warehouse by sharing the rent on it, and we wanted to make art,” King continues. But while many DIY collectives come together for projects and last a year or two, Meow Wolf has not only survived, but thrived.
Over the years, Meow Wolf has become known for its immersive, collaborative installations. They’ve filled warehouse spaces with artistic interventions—from alien landscapes and glowing grottos, to labyrinths built of found materials, linked by passageways, ladders, and tunnels. They’ve also tapped into local and visiting audiences as a live music venue, and currently offer a lineup of live music and events held at the Meow Wolf Art Complex (their headquarters, where House of Eternal Return is located).
Meow Wolf’s recent financial success, however, has opened the group to scrutiny. Some in the art world have expressed anxiety over Meow Wolf’s emphasis on sensational, immersive art, as well as its escapist narrative, lack of authorship, and what its admission-based economic model could mean for the art world. Some question whether it is art at all, or if it is simply entertainment—even going so far as calling Meow Wolf “toxic” to fine art.
The members of Meow Wolf feel strongly, however, that the traditional commercial models of galleries and art fairs leave most artists out in the cold, while elitist attitudes in galleries and museums turn away members of the general public. The collective believes its alternative to art world systems is vital and necessary. King offers up the underlying philosophy: “We have geared what we have done to inspire as many people as we can, and to offer employment to the most artists that we can.”
In instilling its work with broad appeal, Meow Wolf members maintain that they do not intentionally temper their art to be family friendly. “We haven’t watered down our ideas for the public,” says Kennedy. “We can cater to a wide audience without even trying to, just by having a wide array of projects by a wide array of artists.”
In a time of increasing precarity for young and under-recognized artists, it’s hard to argue against the Meow Wolf model of creating well-paying jobs that don’t sacrifice creative freedom. Meow Wolf currently employs around 140 people, most of whom are in full-time positions.
Several jobs offered at the Meow Wolf Art Complex are paid hourly, like line cook positions and box office staff. But the full-time creative positions, like architects and sound engineers, come with considerable salaries and benefits. “We have 20-year-olds making $50,000 a year with us,” remarks Everett.
Some members of Meow Wolf work with the collective on a freelance or project basis, on their own terms; as Everett says, “It’s very fluid.” In addition to the work involved in maintaining and adding to the House of Eternal Return, collective members also work on future exhibitions and various projects and performances for other entities around the U.S., such as music festivals. The collective operates under a “radically inclusive” ethos—any contribution, no matter how small, entitles one to membership in Meow Wolf. “Since the beginning, we’ve always been an open door,” King notes.
Salaried positions and corporate status are new developments, which came out of the success of the House of Eternal Return. “This is the first real project where we were able to offer employment, and that’s including ourselves,” King says. “For the first seven years, nobody got paid.” In fact, the Meow Wolfers who built the House of Eternal Return either worked for free, or were paid under market rate from a tight budget supplied by investors and Kickstarter funds. Now that the attraction is turning a tidy profit, a portion of the revenues are being distributed as a form of back pay. And as a for-profit, B Corporation, it’s looking into share options to offer to collective members and investors in the future. “There’s something really nice about, even in a small way, involving people in the success of the thing,” says Kennedy.
Could that success be replicated elsewhere? King acknowledges that the collective could have started up anywhere, but credits Santa Fe for the growth they were able to achieve. The city bears a strong artistic identity, but it’s art scene is less competitive and cutthroat than that of major U.S. art hubs like New York and Los Angeles. Meow Wolf found support in the Santa Fe art community, press, and residents—not to mention its first major investor, local literary legend George R. R. Martin, who put up the initial investment, to the tune of $3.5 million, to buy the old bowling alley that now houses the Meow Wolf Art Complex. Martin remains active in the company as landlord, investor, and an owner.
Like any start-up enterprise, Meow Wolf’s artist-collective-turned-corporate-entity is still in its early stages. As King suggests, they’re acquiring their business acumen “on the fly.” Whether they can sustain growth and profitability in the long term remains to be seen, but these initial successes certainly give cause to sit up and take notice.
Meow Wolf is now actively pursuing plans to expand beyond Santa Fe and into different markets. A new, even larger Meow Wolf permanent installation in the city of Denver is on the horizon, and they are also considering setting up shows in other cities in the future.
Beyond their own expansion plans, Meow Wolf is committed to passing on support to other DIY creative communities. In the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, Meow Wolf established a $100,000 annual fund to provide grants and free consultations to DIY art spaces around the country. In the future, one might imagine, these efforts could lead to a renaissance of artist collectives—up-to-code, thriving artist communities that are maybe even profitable.