Meow Wolf’s Magic Kingdom
How a ragtag group of artists launched an art-entertainment empire
One afternoon this spring, I was exploring the dim, salmon-pink kitchen inside the Meow Wolf collective’s first permanent exhibit, House of Eternal Return — a sprawling, fever-dream portrayal of a family home that had a nasty brush with the multiverse — when someone bulldozed me aside from behind.
I wheeled around, expecting to find, say, a vacationing linebacker. Instead, my assailant was a grandmotherly woman in a teal blouse, who now stared raptly at the refrigerator. “Look! Look!” she called back to her family, pointing insistently. On cue, the fridge’s door slowly swung open, spreading a fan of milky light across the linoleum floor. From where one expected to see racks and crispers, two wide-eyed teenagers emerged. Behind them, down the refrigerated rabbit hole, a glowing white corridor plunged into the unknown.
Somewhat by design, it’s difficult to explain exactly what House of Eternal Return is, because words like “museum” and “gallery” certainly don’t cover it. Equal parts art pageant, labyrinth of curiosities, and interactive storytelling experience, the House is best understood as a wonderland of creative consciousness expansion. What Meow Wolf sells isn’t just art but awe, hypershareable and appropriate for all ages — less MoMA, more Magic Mushroom Kingdom. As Emily Montoya, one of the collective’s co-founders, told me, “We bring out the adult in the child and the child in the adult.” The aim, in other words, is to make even a grandmother want to bowl through you to gaze in stupefaction at a fridge.
Inside House of Eternal Return, hidden bookcase doors lead to rainbow-lit simulations of non-Euclidean space-time. Flora musically luminesce at your touch. Next door to the interdimensional travel agency, on the way to the mastodon cavern, a long, tubular owl slowly blinks down at passers-by from its glacier-blue roost. “The first time I walked through, I thought, My god, this is what it looks like when you dream — come to life! ” said Winston Fisher, a Meow Wolf investor who now sits on the company’s board of directors.
The ticket-buying public, it’s fair to say, has responded with similar enthusiasm to the collective’s experiment in family-friendly psychedelia. When Meow Wolf first set out to turn an abandoned Santa Fe bowling alley into the House, in 2015, it told investors it would need 100,000 visitors per year to break even, a far-fetched goal for a ragtag band of dumpster-foraging artists. Last year, Meow Wolf drew 500,000 people. Its gross revenue of $9 million could’ve recouped the exhibit’s construction cost nearly four times over. And every week, the line outside stretches farther and farther toward the sunbaked, 30-foot-tall robot at the opposite end of the parking lot.
The only people not blindsided by the House’s success, it seems, are the Meow Wolfers themselves, led by their combatively self-assured CEO, Vince Kadlubek. “We knew this was going to go viral,” Kadlubek told me. “We were putting art into a context it had never been put into before. I remember as we were opening the exhibit, when we had no money in the bank and people were wondering if it was going to work, just yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘You guys, we are creating something that is going to be international! Just trust it!’ ”
What once sounded like grandiosity looks downright prescient today. Only a few years removed from its days of scavenging, Meow Wolf is now a burgeoning art-entertainment empire, with more than 350 employees and some $30 million in funding to build its next two permanent exhibits, in Las Vegas and Denver. The success of these new outposts, set to cost nine figures to build and operate, will determine whether the collective can pull off plans far more ambitious than conventional growth. “The trajectory we’re on, I see us one day creating something like a Disneyland, where people come for the weekend and there’s more than they could ever see,” said Matt King, Meow Wolf’s sleeve-tattooed and bountifully maned creative vice president.
In a time when crowds at traditional museums keep thinning and what was once called high culture increasingly seems like a niche pursuit for the aging, Meow Wolf’s maximalist approach may just represent the future of how we interact with art. This future isn’t quietly intellectual, hands-off, or overseen by frowning, blue-haired docents. It’s immersive, broadly appealing, Instagrammable — and primed for expansion.
Viewed from a certain angle, the story of Meow Wolf is really the story of Vince Kadlubek’s getting himself fired in three increasingly productive ways. Now 36, with a wide, perpetually stubbled jawline and an air of aloof intensity, Kadlubek has long had a reputation around his native Santa Fe as a firebrand — charming and passionate but also given to eruptions. For a CEO in the visionary mold, this approach has its uses. “What makes Vince great at what he does is that he’s willing to say shit that really upsets you,” Sean Di Ianni, Meow Wolf’s chief operating officer, told me. But Kadlubek has also had a habit of spitting venom at those who stand in his way, be it through newspaper letters sections (where he has denounced opponents as “silly clowns”) or social media; the Santa Fe New Mexican notes, for example, that Kadlubek “is known to write incendiary comments on Facebook and then delete them.” As one longtime friend told me, “Vince is a brilliant guy. That means he can be brilliantly generous and a brilliant asshole.”
Hence the first firing. In 2006, while working as a program coordinator for a local youth arts nonprofit, Kadlubek staged an explosive confrontation with his boss over the center’s direction. He was fired on the spot. Afterward, as he sat weeping in his car, Kadlubek noticed a “For Lease” sign on a vacant hair salon. He thought of all his young artist friends stuck in the purgatorial parade of menial jobs they called the “Santa Fe shuffle,” unable to get their work shown in the city’s notoriously conservative galleries. An idea struck. “I realized that for 900 bucks a month, we could have our own space if we all pitched in,” Kadlubek told me. Nine friends rallied to the cause. To find a name, they drew random words out of two hats — and thus, Meow Wolf was born.
From the start, the new collective walked a narrow path between collaboration and anarchy. “That first space was tiny,” King said. “We didn’t want it to be yours this month, then mine next month, because then it would be a year until you got to show anything again.” So, by necessity, Meow Wolf’s members — painters, graphic designers, performers, and more — began banding together on hulking junk-sculpture installations: horror houses filled with piles of castoff televisions, geodesic domes modeled out of umbrellas and lawn furniture. At first, these works were formless and chaotic; artists would stake out a piece of turf and create whatever they wanted. “But a few shows into that, we started to get dissatisfied with the lack of composition and flow,” Caity Kennedy, Meow Wolf’s vice president of art direction, told me. Soon, they settled into a formula that continues to this day: Each new exhibition featured alcoves that individual artists could sculpt as they pleased, so long as their work fit with the piece’s central vision.
Reaching that central vision was a fractious process, however, marked not just by artistic disagreements but by a widespread antipathy to the very idea of planning. The collective’s weekly Wednesday-night meetings often bloated into four-hour sagas of arguments and mayhem. “I was the first person to bring an agenda to a meeting, and it literally got crumpled up and thrown on the floor,” recalled Corvas Brinkerhoff, now Meow Wolf’s chief technology officer.
The last thing that most of the collective’s artists wanted was a boss, but Kadlubek kept fighting to be just that. “Vince is someone who really wants to lead,” King said, “and back then, we all wanted to be on an even playing field.” Plus, added Kennedy, “there was nothing to lead. We were stapling garbage to the walls.” Kadlubek wrote stories and plays for Meow Wolf, yet his greatest gifts lay in his propensity for organization and strategy. The more that impulse got thwarted by a group that prided itself on its rebellious ethos, the more strained things grew. “I was just a 20-something kid who was figuring out what he was capable of,” Kadlubek told me. “I wanted to have more of a grip on the collective, while they wanted a free-for-all. So there was tension there.”
Things finally boiled over in 2008, when Kadlubek had to step away from Meow Wolf. While not explicitly a firing — volunteer-run arts collectives whose primary assets are burritos and reclaimed lumber don’t really fire people — it amounted to as much. The 16 months Kadlubek spent away from the collective were difficult ones for him. He grew suicidal. He fell into shoplifting bread and electronics. What turned things around was attending the Landmark Forum, a personal-development course praised by admirers as a tough-love path to radical accountability and criticized by detractors as a cultish asshole-encouragement program. Either way, it spoke to Kadlubek. “It was literally a weekend that completely changed my life,” he told me. “It brought me back into a positive relationship with my own capabilities.”
Newly refocused, Kadlubek returned to Meow Wolf in late 2009 with a play he had written, called The Moon Is to Live On. “I didn’t ask anyone if I could come back in,” he recalled. “I just wrote the script as if it was a Meow Wolf play, and everybody decided it was.” That production set a new standard of ambition for the collective, with rotating stages, video displays, and elaborate neon-glow dream sequences for which audiences received 3-D glasses. More important, The Moon Is to Live On was the first time the collective worked as an actual organization, with duties and planning, under Kadlubek’s looser-reined leadership.
Meow Wolf’s breakthrough came the following year with The Due Return, known around the collective as “the boat” — a nickname that significantly underplays the preposterous monumentality of the project. Commissioned for a run at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, The Due Return was a colossal, 73-foot-long wooden galleon, built from scratch and styled as though it had dimension hopped from 18th-century Earth to beach upon a spookily lambent alien world. One hundred volunteers worked on the ship for a year, vying to fit as much imagination as possible into its 2,500 square feet: scientific specimens, interactive gadgets, a 70,000-word ship’s log, live performers playacting as the boat’s crew, and more.
Just as remarkable as The Due Return’s scope, though, was its immersive appeal. Here was an art installation, sanctified by a respected gallery, that was somehow fun. Kids, especially, found the exhibit enthralling; it was like an explorable, retro-sci-fi Pirates of the Caribbean ride. What truly jolted the collective was the revenue this enthusiasm produced. “We’d put donation boxes out at shows before, and at the end of the month, it would have 25 bucks in it,” Kennedy said. “But with the boat, 98 percent of the people donated $10 or more — and they were thrilled to give it.” By the end of its two-month run, The Due Return had taken in $120,000, which Kadlubek, not knowing what else to do with so much cash, kept in a shoebox.
Triumphant as it was, the show left Meow Wolf exhausted and strangely adrift. “The months after Due Return were hard for everyone,” Di Ianni said. “We saw an opportunity for something, but trying to figure out how to do it led to so many insanely intense, grating conversations that it made us stop meeting.” Save for a few traveling installations, the collective descended into hibernation. Its gallery space remained shuttered. Kadlubek got caught shoplifting DVDs from a Walmart.
It took a tragedy to save the collective from collapse. In 2014, the longtime Meow Wolf collaborator David Loughridge, who had been undergoing electroconvulsive therapy to treat his bipolar disorder, fell into a coma hours after his last treatment. “When David went into the hospital, it was like we had a Meow Wolf reunion inside the waiting room,” King told me. Loughridge died the next day of cardiac arrest. The collective’s six principal founders spent a week in mourning at King and Kennedy’s house. “But being back together felt really good,” King said. “So we really started to push the idea that the only way to get to the next step is if we become the institution — if we find a building where we can make a large enough exhibit to charge admission.”
Which brings us to the third firing. Kadlubek had recently become the marketing director of a newly restored Santa Fe art-house cinema, the Jean Cocteau. The job bored him. “They were having me update their WordPress site, and I really didn’t want to do it,” Kadlubek told me. After a few months, his boss axed him. Yet this particular boss, it so happened, knew a bit more about axing than your average theater owner. His name was George R.R. Martin.
One of Meow Wolf’s more remarkable feats has been its knack for drawing major investments with an idea that, on the surface, doesn’t seem tremendously bankable. In House of Eternal Return’s planning phase, for example, a mutual friend asked the Santa Fe philanthropists Beth and Rick Schneiders to let Kadlubek practice his pitch on them at a local brewery. “So we sat and listened,” Beth recalled, “and when Vince was done, my husband said, ‘Wow, I don’t know that this is ever going to work.’ ” Beth had a different reaction. “I was totally in,” she said. “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard of — a new way of experiencing art that could appeal to all ages and at the same time provide artists with a decent, reliable living. I said, ‘Yes, and I’ll give you $100,000.’ Even Vince was taken aback.” When Kadlubek called a few months later asking for more, she chipped in again — and so many times thereafter that she’s lost count. “I haven’t said no yet,” Beth told me.
The most important sell Kadlubek had to make, of course, was also the thorniest: his bestselling former boss. A Santa Fean since 1979, Martin had been spreading his authorial largesse around the local arts scene for years, leading The Guardian to label him the city’s “unofficial minister of culture.” What remained to be seen was whether his patronage extended to those he’d fired. In July 2014, Kadlubek organized a successful panel discussion at the Jean Cocteau, after which Martin expressed interest in working with him again. Weeks later, Kadlubek took that sliver-width opening and plowed a cement mixer through it. Buy us a derelict bowling alley to house our next exhibit, he proposed, and Meow Wolf will rent it back from you.
Martin, impressed with Kadlubek’s pluck, was surprisingly receptive to the idea. “We drove over to the bowling alley and walked through,” Kadlubek recalled, “and he really loved the bowling-pin sign. He said, ‘If I buy the bowling alley, can we keep the bowling-pin sign?’ I was like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ ” In all, Martin committed $3 million to acquiring and renovating the building, which he then leased to Meow Wolf at a below-market rate. (Martin later bought equity in the company as well.) “Luckily, he didn’t have a really strong business manager at the time,” Kadlubek said, laughing. “Anybody else would’ve looked at us and said it was too risky.”
Coup that it was, courting Martin was only the first step in an arduous trek to make House of Eternal Return a reality. What Meow Wolf wanted to build was unprecedentedly massive: an actual house, flanked on all sides by the blown-out detritus of the multiverse. It wasn’t just the sprawling inventory of physical features that posed a challenge — the networked treetop village, the polychromatic walk-through aquarium, and so on. It was also the logistical dilemma of tying each of these pieces into an overarching narrative mystery, with clues strewn around the exhibit, about a family whose science experiments somehow tore open a rift in space-time.
The undertaking proved so immense, in fact, that it nearly buckled under its own figurative weight. “I kept telling them, the reason businesses fail is because of cash flow,” said David Kantor, one of Meow Wolf’s first investors, who mentored the collective through its earliest for-profit days before risking $40,000 of his own. “I’m sure I became very annoying on the subject, but my concern was that they couldn’t build it for anywhere near what they’d thought. And they couldn’t.” Several times during the House’s construction, Meow Wolf’s founders had to tell employees that they might not make payroll. What saved the project, time and again, was Kadlubek’s talent for finding new financial veins to tap. “I went through a year of fundraising at a psychedelic level,” Kadlubek told me. “It was literally like spiritual ethereal zones that I had to get into in order to raise the $2.5 million it took to build the exhibit.”
When House of Eternal Return finally opened, in March 2016, the artists’ hopes were generally reasonable. Both NPR and The New York Times put out glowing reports (which to some Meow Wolfers was almost validation enough for their efforts), but everyone quickly settled into what promised to be a long hustle. The six founders staffed the front desk, served as docents — which at the House meant donning a lab coat and pretending to investigate the supposed trans-dimensional disaster — and did whatever else needed doing. “We were working the show,” said Emily Montoya, who managed the gift shop, now a $1.4 million-per-year business. “It was good for us to be on the ground and see how people were responding — all the weird places people puked. It makes you not treat your own art as preciously.”
Within months, word of mouth built. Exultant reviews piled up on TripAdvisor. Exhibits like the fridge became selfie darlings; by December, Meow Wolf was already New Mexico’s most-Instagrammed place. Soon enough, even the collective’s exceedingly optimistic year-one attendance projections had quadrupled, with 400,000 tickets sold. “The visitor numbers kept shocking us,” said Kennedy, the art direction VP. “We thought there’d be a spike at first, and then it would settle down and be enough to sustain us. But then it started just ramping up and up and up.”
Even back when the House was only a bowling-alley construction project on the brink of bankruptcy, Kadlubek was touting his plans to colonize other cities. Now, as would-be investors practically lined up on the sidewalk outside, those ambitious plans were growing feasible with alarming speed. Meow Wolf was no longer just a local curiosity. It was a tourism phenomenon at the vanguard of a mouthwateringly profitable kind of art-entertainment experience. As Kadlubek put it to me, with a satisfied smile, “We’ve taken it to the full-vision level faster than we anticipated.”
Inside Meow Wolf’s manufacturing headquarters, a cavernous former Caterpillar plant situated on a windblown expanse in south Santa Fe, the nicked-up concrete floors still bear the painted yellow stripes that once guided earth movers along the assembly line. These days, though, the 15-ton gantry cranes overhead transport giant robotic golems instead of tractors. On the morning I visited, the fabrication team was experimenting with its new toy: a room-sized, $250,000 laser cutter. For the moment, employees were using it to fashion steel bottle openers etched with the fanged Meow Wolf mascot. In the months to come, it’ll be manufacturing creations far larger than that.
Venture-accelerated growth has morphed Meow Wolf into a much different animal than the scrappy collective of two years ago. During House of Eternal Return’s construction, the company had only one employee who could weld; now its build team has dozens. “Those creative guys think of what they want to make, and we make it,” said Adam Rosen, Meow Wolf’s metal-shop foreman, as a blockish, 10-foot-tall skeleton grinned out from its perch behind him. The proof of this boast stood at the far end of the assembly line: the still-secret centerpiece of the upcoming Denver exhibit, a kaleidoscopic metal-and-glass behemoth that looks light-years ahead of anything the collective has yet produced.
When Meow Wolf bought the Caterpillar building last spring, using cash from a crowdfunding campaign that hit its $1 million goal in two days, the company figured it would provide enough space for years to come. It’s already outgrown the place. What strikes you, walking through the plant and seeing the scores of people holding standing meetings or beavering away at translucent alien flora, is just how many artists now have real jobs with benefits. Tuscany Wenger, who leads the art department, told me that Meow Wolf saved Santa Fe’s young artist scene. “I’m a recovered gallery worker,” she said, while nearby, five young women with creative hair debated the relative durabilities of several spray-painted foam blobs. “I’ve been here 25 years, and I’d started to think maybe I’d need to move to a big city to find decent work. Meow Wolf changed that. We’re all buying houses and cars now.”
One amusing feature of this current Meow Wolf milieu — from the outside, at least — is the opportunity to watch a flock of young creators abruptly metamorphose into businesspeople. Di Ianni, for example, is a painter and sculptor with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design who now handles such dynamic matters as insurance policy. Every founder I spoke with kept a frazzled eye on his or her phone, ever mindful of the next commitment. “All I do is go to meetings,” said King, the tattooed creative VP. “From 9 in the morning to 7 at night, I sit in a room and talk to people.” They’ve tried, in classic artist fashion, to invent the business world anew, only to realize the deeper wisdom of the bureaucratic megaculture. “I remember thinking it would be really cool if I had a room that was enclosed, where people could come talk to me, but I’d control that room,” Brinkerhoff recalled. “Then I was like, ‘That’s an office.’ ”
Of all the business realities Meow Wolf finds itself bending to, the most pressing one by far is this: It has two new, vastly larger outposts in Denver and Las Vegas to fill with fresh installations over the next 18 months — and only a fraction of the work is done. At the Caterpillar plant, a sense of focused determination prevailed over the craft-store-explosion chaos. The whiteboards were dense with lists of projects in progress: “sentient slime fungus,” “sky vines,” “pizza couch design.” As Montoya, the co-founder, told me, “I know we’re going to pull it off, but I still don’t know how.”
Complicating the challenge even more, Meow Wolf must build these two new spaces to serve entirely different imperatives. The Denver location, slated to open in 2020 amid a snarl of highway overpasses, will be three times bigger than House of Eternal Return, but it has the virtue of being another one-off installation. The Las Vegas exhibit, set to debut in late 2019, poses a deeper logistical conundrum. Meow Wolf is planning the attraction much as a chain like Starbucks designs its stores: as an easily repeatable template for future expansion. “With Vegas, we have to think, Well, what if we build five more of these in the next few years? ” explained Brinkerhoff. “We need to make it so that each one is worth seeing on its own if you’ve been to the others, but we’re not reinventing the wheel each time, either.”
The question that lingers above all of this, naturally, is why anyone should think that something as idiosyncratic as Meow Wolf will scale up. To Winston Fisher — whose family real-estate firm, Fisher Brothers, has invested heavily in the company — the answer is that experiences, not things, are the future of retail. “The mall, at best, gives you Santa at Christmas,” he said. “That’s not enough anymore.” So when Fisher Brothers began planning to build a 126,000-square-foot “immersive bazaar” called Area15 on a tract of land west of the Vegas strip, Meow Wolf was the obvious anchor tenant. “You can be 5 years old or 75 and find wonder at Meow Wolf,” he explained. “They have quickly managed to go from being a good idea to a company with real operational experience.”
As eccentric an attraction as it is, House of Eternal Return dovetails with what has become a broad cultural hunger for immersive art experiences. Take (as many San Franciscans undoubtedly wish you would) the fantastically profitable Museum of Ice Cream, a pop-up selfie palace that has celebrities and civilians queuing up for hours for a $38 dip into its sprinkle pool. Or consider other spectacle-art blockbusters, like the dazzling light installations of Japan’s teamLab or Random International’s Rain Room, in which visitors stay miraculously dry as water plashes all around them. The uniting factors, said Ben Davis, the national art critic for Artnet, are broad, fantastical appeal and shareability. “This kind of Instagram-trap artistic experience has captured people’s imaginations,” Davis told me.
To differentiate these crowd-pleasing upstarts from their more distinguished forebears, Davis coined a term in his review of House of Eternal Return: Big Fun Art. It’s a label that the collective finds irritating, not necessarily because it’s subtly belittling (though there’s that, too), but because it soft-plays a side of its work that it views with almost evangelical fervor. “It doesn’t take into account the passionate importance that the work has not only to the artists but to visitors,” Kennedy told me. For the company’s founders, Meow Wolf isn’t just an attraction but a worldview — a living gospel on the power of creativity, which they hope to spread far and wide. “People live this life on a predictable track,” Kadlubek told me. “They do what they’re used to, and they’re bored by it. They don’t look for new things. They don’t explore.” He paused. “But they do when they come to Meow Wolf.”
The first time I visited House of Eternal Return, little of what I saw seemed to line up with the exhibit’s rapturous reviews — at least not initially. Several exhibits, like the ballyhooed “laser harp,” were either broken or on the blink. More to the point, the installation’s multiverse-crossing narrative, which Kadlubek has extolled as nothing less than a reinvention of storytelling, never had a chance to click: Even on a slow day, the pieces of documentary evidence that tell the tale were too crowded around to access. At one moment, a confused-looking woman stopped me to ask, “Hey, did anyone happen to tell you what the mystery we’re trying to solve is?”
It’s at times like this that Meow Wolf’s designs on Disneydom seem most premature, to say nothing of the collective’s more grandiose ideas. Over coffee one morning, Kadlubek outlined for me his vision of Meow Wolf as an “alternative- reality network” in which the company’s “location-based nodes” — i.e., physical exhibits — will be merely one component of the broader mission to pervade customers’ minds with pure, uncut creativity. “Even when you’re not there, you can be connected into a greater alternative reality that is more magical, more creative, more fun, more unexpected,” he explained, his words gathering speed. “All of these things that you feel when you’re inside Meow Wolf can be your life at all times if you’re part of this future.” Here, Meow Wolf’s media relations man jumped in, not for the first time, to sand off the rougher edges of his CEO’s audacity. “We just want the world to be a Meow Wolf,” he joked.
Yet for all the installation’s kinks, there comes a point in almost any visit when wonder prevails over skepticism. Even a consciousness that remains stubbornly resistant to expansion can’t help but marvel at how much sheer imagination the House packs into its dark confines: campers parked in treetops, undulating tunnels of light, infinitely refracting cakes, domes tiled with eyes — hundreds of miniature universes, realized in fanatical detail. As you explore them, you encounter patrons exclaiming the same words over and over: “Whoa.… Cool!” It’s a refrain one seldom hears at the Guggenheim or the Whitney. And it may just be the basis for an empire.