After all the artists’ work, all the praise, all the money generated for Santa Fe and New Mexico—after all that, how do we see Meow Wolf and the House of Eternal Return? Is the collective making art? Does the 20,000-square-foot space offer an experience of art or mere entertainment? Is this a business or a political animal, and does that matter? Regardless of the answers, such questions are seemingly only being raised behind closed doors.
To understand Meow Wolf (1352 Rufina Circle, 395-6369, meowwolf.com), let's remember that it was born nine years ago and reared by a group of 135 artists who exhibited works such as the 2011 installation of a 70-foot ship at the Center for Contemporary Arts called The Due Return. In 2015, George RR Martin, the Santa Fe writer-in-residence who conceived Game of Thrones, bought the abandoned Silva Lanes bowling alley on Rufina Circle and invested $3 million for renovations, essentially becoming Meow Wolf's landlord, according to an article from Albuquerque Business First in April of last year. The House emerged in March 2016, and has since welcomed locals and tourists to enjoy its fantastical, interactive experience.
Meow Wolf has also blossomed into a business juggernaut. Earlier this year, Vince Kadlubek, the 35-year-old CEO and co-founder, said that MW brought in over 400,000 visitors and generated $6 million in revenue in 2016. A report from the state Economic Development Department estimated the creation of 440 jobs and $358 million in revenue over the next decade.
Last month, Gov. Susana Martinez announced that Meow Wolf—which she christened "one of the world's premier arts destinations"—was purchasing the former Caterpillar fabrication plant to house offices for 250 jobs to be created over the next five years, allowing access to a proposed $750,000 in state economic development grant money. The city will reportedly add $250,000.
Mayor Javier Gonzales, who had appointed Kadlubek to his current post on the city Planning Commission in 2015, said he was "proud of Meow Wolf for achieving great success while adding to the Santa Fe brand of high-quality art and performance experiences."
Today, Kadlubek defines MW as "more than just an art exhibit." It's "an art collective that has become a for-profit business selling a new type of artwork that's immersive, interactive and story-based," Kadlubek tells SFR. "It's a huge economic boost through the entire state."
The owners of mobile art gallery Axle Contemporary support the space. "Meow Wolf has been a wonderful, powerful, energizing benefit to Santa Fe," Jerry Wellman and Matthew Chase-Daniel write in a Facebook message. When asked whether MW is creating art or entertainment, the artists reply, "They are creating and engaging in the languages of both," before adding that "the definition of art is unanswerable in an objective way."
For Kadlubek, the answer comes with a particular tone. "Yes, we consider Meow Wolf art," he explains. "I personally don't care what you call it; it's an assemblage of creativity that is bringing jobs to people. You can call it entertainment."
Entertainment? That's what some artists are calling it.
"To me, it's nothing more than entertainment," Ilona Pachler, a Santa Fe artist who has also had solo exhibitions in New York and Austria. "I visited the House and said, 'Oh, cool. But that is not enough.' You look at it for 10 minutes and forget about it. Does it stretch your imagination? Does it stretch your thought process? I don't think so."
Artist Darrell Wilks, a former creative director at ad agencies Grey NYC and J Walter Thompson in New York who served on the Santa Fe Film Festival board, says that Meow Wolf "is impressive because its members were able to have resources and the wherewithal to create such a large-scale project." After visiting the House, however, he felt he "was not the audience."
Painter Tim Reed, who's showing his art in the upcoming The Only Way Out Is Through exhibit at FreeForm Art Space, says Meow Wolf is "a spectacle that's nice and enjoyable," but "toxic." He explains: "This exhibit being sold to the public as fine art is poisonous to fine art," he says. "Fine art is one of the most important tools we have to healing in a troubled society. It's a charade."
So why is criticism necessary? The artists here don't want to change our minds about MW, but they feel the need to express themselves as others cower from reviewing the place in any capacity other than glowlingly positive. Several artists and gallery owners refused to return interview requests or declined to speak on the record, expressing concern over "attracting conflict" and "retaliation."
Kadlubek gets defensive when hearing scrutiny and argues that the "art world enjoys segregating creativity that is consumed by a general population as entertainment."
"There's an art tradition that if it's creativity and the general population is enjoying it then it's no longer art," Kadlubek says. "In order to get the 'art' tag, it seems like you have to play to a population that is a bit more segmented and elite. There's a hundred different opinions at Meow Wolf. I don't care to segment art and creative. It's pretty clear to see what creativity is."
Reed, however, doesn't buy the argument. "If you speak out and criticize, then you appear to attack the people who took part in creating it," Reed says. "But it's not that. Critique has opened so much in art. It's inherent. My brain still wants it to be art, so it has to be criticized. But we're selling ourselves short if we convince ourselves that this is art."
Pachler adds: "You can be a commercial success and still be considered art."
Earlier this month, Kadlubek told the Denver Post that he's been realty-hunting for a new Meow Wolf space in Colorado and later confirmed that he was also visiting cities like Austin, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Houston and Albuquerque. "Right now, there is nothing certain," says Kadlubek, who plans to announce a new facility mid-summer. "The size of the exhibit has to be much larger than Santa Fe. The real estate deal is monumental."
For now, artists continue to contemplate Meow Wolf's role in the creative community.
"This is not art anymore," Pachler says. "It's business. It's politics. It's all blurry."