In a blog post published Jan. 5, arts corporation Meow Wolf provided answers to its “weirdest FAQs.”
It’s a fun little piece that starts with a jab at gender policing assholes (”Are you a boy or a girl?” the questioner queries, to which the writer replies, flatly and brilliantly, “No.”) The post goes on to make jokes about the space and attempts to humorously answer them.
Take, for example, the question, “What is your policy on shoes?” The writer replies that the company, “supports all forms of footwear as long as they’re unbelievably fashionable and/or float on water/air.” As I said, it’s fun, it’s kicky, it’s harmless (though a joke answer to a question about what brand the company uses for its sanitation efforts seems bizarre at this point in the whole COVID thing). It does not appear as if the company meant for folks to take the piece particularly seriously.
But with Meow Wolf launching not one but two new locations in Texas this year, plus its ongoing operations in Santa Fe, Colorado and Nevada, the post did get me thinking that I have some FAQs of my own, which I assure you are all too real.
Who is considered a contracted employee versus a staff employee at this moment in Meow Wolf history?
Some workers I’ve spoken to don’t even know their employment status. I’ve heard horror stories from current and former employees who won’t go on the record in this or any arena—for fear of retaliation (legal or otherwise)—about not quite understanding how they’re designated as employees. Sure, they signed something at some point, they know, and they work with company equipment doing company things during company hours—they just don’t know whether they have job security, nor do they know what kind of protections they might enjoy. It’s easy to say things about workers going to court or lawyering up or getting that contract eyeballed, but who has the time or money for all that? Do you think this is why so many workers wanted to unionize?
Why do so many current and former workers over there have to sign non-disclosure agreements?
Take the 201 workers who were laid off at the outset of the pandemic (who, by the way, were told it was because of the pandemic, which SFR later learned was likely not true). In order to receive severance packages after leaving Meow Wolf’s employ, I’m told, all those folks had to sign NDAs, which included non-disparagement clauses. While I get that there are probably company secrets at the higher echelons at Meow Wolf—and it makes sense for the company to try and keep a lid on upcoming projects—I’m frequently questioning what information floor workers or gift shop cashiers might have had access to that would have hindered the company’s ability to make money. One also wonders why a company that has been so vocally adamant about the happiness of artists would want to gag workers from saying what they didn’t like about it...y’know, since artist happiness can only go up when feedback is taken seriously.
When did all those workers get laid off?
April 10, 2020.
When did Meow Wolf receive a pandemic-spurred PPP loan to the tune of $6,627,470 ($6,178,145 of which was slated for payroll and $6,122,326 of which has since been forgiven, according to ProPublica)?
April 11, 2020—the very next day! The timing seems interesting given the whole thing where companies who received those loans for payroll purposes weren’t really supposed to let anyone go. Of course, it could all just be a coincidence, right? Like, it’s possible they got the paperwork together real quick on the night of April 10? Those layoffs did seem to put wind in the sails of the employees’ efforts to union, however, which was indeed ratified last April. But the journey to get there was full of Fs and Qs.
Did any of those workers get hired back?
Yes—some did. We’ve asked Meow Wolf how many, but they haven’t gotten back to us yet.
Why was the company seemingly so dead-set against the formation of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective union, and why did anti-union language pop up in a job posting before the MWWC was officially ratified?
The Meow Wolf Workers Collective made its intent to unionize known back in September, 2020, at which point then-joint CEOs Jim Ward, Ali Rubinstein and Carl Christensen dashed off a statement to SFR. It read, in part: “Meow Wolf recognizes and respects our employees’ right to organize. The policies, practices and culture already in place make our company a great place to work and we value our ability to work directly with employees. As such, we feel Meow Wolf works best without a union.” By January of 2022, the MWWC had filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, and by April 2022, the union was ratified. Guess the workers disagreed with the big bosses about what works best.
Does the company still dislike the idea of a union?
Denver employees publicly announced that they, too, wanted a union last July, and company spokeswoman Didi Bethurum told SFR at the time that, “Meow Wolf recognizes and respects our employees’ right to organize. We voluntarily recognized the MWWC/CWA in Santa Fe in October 2020 and had a successful bargaining agreement completed in March 2022.” In an Instagram post from earlier this month, the @mwwxnm account provided a little update on that Denver union, noting that among other developments “management pushed back on including Denver as an addendum to the Santa Fe contract which limits our strength by keeping our contracts and units separate”:
Today, we know there’s a bargaining committee, and it looks like things are moving along. But there’s no official word on an agreement yet. Hell, it took Santa Fe’s MWWC 17 months to make it happen.
“Our bargaining process continues and is a series of ups and downs,” bargaining committee member and creative operator Seth Palmer Harris tells SFR. “The day-to-day of the job is extremely enjoyable—it’s wonderful to interact with the people coming through and to elevate the experience they’re having—but it does have frustrations.”
A recent minimum wage increase to $17.29 per hour in Denver, for example, means the company’s Colorado location currently pays a mere 71 cents more than the city minimum for most positions, according to Harris.
“We’re hopeful Meow Wolf will see that’s not a sustainable rate of pay,” Harris continues. “It’s a world class workforce and we think we deserve a world class wage. We do feel like we’ve had some wins in the bargaining process, and we are eternally grateful to the workers of Santa Fe—their contract kind of serves as a base for us. There’s a lot that needs to be settled at this point, but as far as what we’ve bargained for thus far, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for what we’re doing.”
Harris says the committee believes the company is negotiating in good faith. If true, kudos to Meow Wolf for recognizing its employees’ (basic human) right to organize, and that its multi-million dollar success(es?) hinges on the artists, writers, musicians and all the rest who pour their lives into doing the damn thing—now the brass just needs to make sure they treat their people right rather than just saying words about how they’re aware rights exist. Assuming the Denver version of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective does flare into existence, it, like the Santa Fe MWWC, will operate under the auspices of the Communication Workers of America union.
What of reproductive health care for workers in states with restrictive laws—such as Texas, where Meow Wolf will soon have outposts in Houston and Grapevine?
In news that’s a lot cooler, Meow Wolf’s vice president of public relations and communications, Kati Murphy, tells SFR that the company is on board to help workers who get pregnant and need certain services that might not be covered or legal in some states. “Meow Wolf is committed to ensuring access to safe and timely reproductive healthcare for our employees, regardless of where they live,” Murphy writes in an emailed response to our Q. That’s honestly pretty great, especially the part where we have a company person committing those words to the public record so we can all reference them later.
But what’s up with that lawsuit from artist Lauren Adele Oliver over her much-ballyhooed Space Owl character?
The former Meow Wolf artist has been embroiled in a legal battle with the company since 2020. In short, it comes down to Oliver believing she’d enjoy an ongoing revenue share based on her installation, Ice Station Quellette, which included the Space Owl—a character Oliver says she spent years developing and which was used regularly in the company’s promotional materials for some time. That revenue share didn’t end up happening, Oliver claims and, in part, the suit has taken so long due to allegedly inactive emails, deleted digital conversations and, likely, the pandemic. Oliver seeks $1 million in her suit, but just last week, US Magistrate Judge Steven C. Yarbrough ruled that if the case goes to trial, Meow Wolf can use newly found text message evidence that suggests she was looking to sue the company all the way back in 2018—or at least was looking for a lawyer to help her negotiate a better deal for her inclusion in the company’s flagship House of Eternal Return perma-installation. Yarbrough also put Oliver on the hook to pay Meow Wolf’s legal fees for part of the case, according to ArtNet.
Company spokeswoman Didi Bethurum tells SFR, “This is a pending litigation, so we don’t have a comment at this time.”
Oliver’s attorney, Jesse Boyd, however, has thoughts. “The court’s ruling is complex, and we disagree with many of the underlying suppositions. This does not distract from the merits of our case,” he says in a statement to SFR. “In our three-year investigation into the business practices of Meow Wolf, Inc., their attorneys have kept intense pressure on Lauren. Regardless, we are more than prepared to prove at trial that Defendants Vince Kadlubek and Meow Wolf, Inc. impersonated an art collective to misappropriate the creations of dozens of local artists, including Lauren, as well as the labor of hundreds of volunteers and the trust and financial support of the entire Santa Fe community to launch their corporate entertainment empire.”
Why are employees so scared?
We’ll go ahead and answer this Q with a Q: Seriously, though, if this company is supposed to be such a fun place for art and friendship, as its carefully curated public image suggests, why are so many employees scared to talk to anyone about their concerns? Well, publicly, anyway.
How long are we all supposed to regard this corporation as a kooky arts collective?
While true that Meow Wolf is a certified B Corp—which “is a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials,” according to bcorporation.net, the days of it being a crazy experiment conducted by friends who just wanna art together are long gone. And you know what? That’s fine. I don’t think that part makes anyone feel particularly upset, so much as the perpetration of the “art frenz!” narrative does. Let it be a corporation—a B Corp, even—but let’s at least recognize it as such.