The author, posing awkwardly as usual, before Meow Wolf’s facade. Photo by Heather Hyland
I went to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lived to tell the tale. Hearken, you artlings, “creatives” (awful term, IMO), and anyone not covered by those categories.
Perhaps you know the story: a collective of artists who felt they were outsiders in the market-driven art world joined together and began holding group shows. Their desire for a permanent space was answered when, like a large, hairy angel, George R. R. Martin learned about them and helped them buy a bowling alley to make over into an immersive environment that would showcase their work. The space was carved up into a myriad of areas (let’s call them galleries), more than you would think possible in a building that size, and different artists worked their magicks in different spaces.
The concept has proved a great success, and new Meow Wolf spaces are scheduled to open in Las Vegas (in 2020), Denver (in 2021) and Washington D.C. and Phoenix yet to come. Their commitment to working with local artists and giving back to the community is admirable.
What to call the result? A funhouse made by artists? An escape room you might not want to escape from? A Disney attraction with street cred? Of course I had to find out.
Not a Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Heather Hyland
Although there is no uniformity among the artists involved, there is one unfortunate thing they all share: a lack of credit. You can learn about some of the artists on Meow Wolf’s website, but don’t expect labels or anything redolent of a traditional museum. I hate to keep bringing up Disney, but a great many talented artists worked on their animated classics, not all of whom got credit. If you research hard enough, you can sometimes find out who animated a particular scene or designed a certain character, but for obvious reasons they can’t sign their work.
The House of Eternal Return. Photo by Lindsey Kennedy from Meow Wolf’s website.
Meow Wolf Santa Fe is entitled The House of Eternal Return, and you can follow the storyline contained in these galleries, or just absorb it as a sensory experience. I did the latter, being more interested in what it looked like rather than as a support for a rather X-Files meets…well, I’d have to have paid more attention to the story to finish that phrase. Once you are past the ticket counter, the shop and cafe, you come to the house itself (above).
In some ways the house is the masterpiece of Meow Wolf, in that it feels very much like a real house, in sharp contrast to everything that comes after. I looked to see if there was a pair of Wicked Witch’s feet sticking out from beneath it, but in the interest of not spoiling the story, I won’t tell you if I found anything.
The story manifests itself.
There are numerous ways you can leave the house and enter the spaces beyond, some of which feature so regularly in discussions of Meow Wolf (the refrigerator, the dryer) I don’t feel I’m spoiling by mentioning them. Besides, Meow Wolf is a huge success, and that means crowds. Secret entrances aren’t secret if there’s a line of people taking photos and waiting to go through. There was one secret entrance I did not find until much later, and was pleasantly surprised that such a public area held a bit of mystery.
I have a feeling we’re not in New Mexico anymore, Toto…
When they offer you 3D glasses, take them. There is extensive, but not constant, use of 3D effects, which is trippy and occasionally disconcerting. In the psychedelic forest above (there’s a secret about that I won’t reveal here) the carpeting seemed to shift as I watched the blue and pink dots, leaving me momentarily uncertain just where the floor was. This was one of my favorite areas, simple though it is. It has no pretensions.
The tremor in my right hand sabotaged this shot of a small niche, which I thought had a Quay Brother-like feel to it, but I’m including it anyway.
The spaces vary wildly, as you can see below, where black and white gives way to riotous color, or a homey kitchen leads to a science fiction-like corridor in light silver (two photos down). The science fiction area is my least favorite, seemingly not thought through and too dependent on the story to stand by itself.
This brings me to a criticism. Meow Wolf celebrates the interactive nature of its spaces, where you not only walk through them, you open doors, pull handles – there’s even an arcade with vintage games to play – another space I felt was not so well done. But I felt the need for more interactivity. Some videos show you people involved in the story, even in oblique ways, but there is never any physical presence – no actors or cosplayers, and I missed that. Perhaps that would be too Disney. There is a phone with a video screen, with which you can communicate with someone else in another part of the exhibit, but it’s just another tourist on the far end, if there’s anyone at all. Could someone march through in costume, ignoring the paying public, in order to (another term I hate) “activate the space”?
The striped walls paired with a grid of blocks with various designs made me imagine Sol LeWitt designing an elementary school. Unknown tourists at right.
I can understand one reason Meow Wolf might not want to further clutter up the galleries with actors: overcrowding. Though it doesn’t reach Louvre-like degrees of cheek-by-jowl claustrophobia, some of the spaces are quite small, and you are often bound to the way the traffic is moving. Throwing actors into it might just create traffic jams. They stage concerts in the galleries, with a stage specially for the purpose, and I can only imagine what that must be like. I wonder about the acoustics, too.
While I enjoyed my time there, it was a lot, bordering on sensory overload. There is some audio from occasional videos, music from a piano and a percussion instrument of sorts that I won’t describe, and always the sound of tourists commenting, exclaiming, sometimes even explicating. I began to long for a quiet room full of academic paintings that people barely paused in on their way to the van Goghs or Warhols.
Also I began to wonder what established artists would fit in with the Meow Wolf concept. A few names popped up at once:
Yayoi Kusama, whose Infinity Room I wrote about when I visited the Phoenix Art Museum. Her shortcomings in terms of intellectual content and her colorful, fun aesthetic would fit right in.
Pipilotti Rist, whose videos and installations are haunting, colorful, and baffling.
The Surrealists – as a group I think they could do an immersive environment better than anyone, and gleefully abandon narrative whenever it suited them.
Leonard Knight, whose Salvation Mountain is not quite interactive, but is an environment with its own message, and the DIY approach acclaimed by Meow Wolf is obvious.
Having just seen the Jim Henson show at the Albuquerque Museum (see previous post) this fellow gave me flashbacks. He blinks, but seems to do nothing else.
Meow Wolf might be called a populist kunsthalle, a space with a permanent collection that cannot be loaned (I assume) but is not a museum, as it has no educational mandate of any kind. It is not dependent on big names drawing in crowds. I kept hearing John Lennon singing in my ear “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…”
In a display of crudely altered cereal boxes, I was especially amused by Tantrum. The impasto on the “milk” is a nice touch.
There are many other artists I could name who would float downstream nicely with the artists of Meow Wolf. What separates Meow Wolf from these, aside from Leonard Knight, is that the others have the backing and resources of major museums and galleries. They do not make street art. What they have created is an artistic version of Off-Off-Broadway, where odd plays are presented outside, with greater freedom and lower cost. More about that in a moment.
Their intent to shake up the art world is still up for grabs; my little list of artists serves only to point out that immersive environments are not a new thing. Meow Wolf’s business model, a permanent space for under-represented artists making largely unpolished work, is new. Is it sustainable? Financially, the answer seems to be yes. But there are perils ahead for Meow Wolf: these artists joined together to present their work the way they wanted it, not breaking out (as they were not “in”) but being honest to their own visions. What happens, then, if one of them does break out, and gain acclaim outside of Meow Wolf? Do they move on, or will there be a juggling act between the star and their former equals, now just supporting players?
Other perils are already here. Two lawsuits, alleging gender discrimination and pay inequities, have been settled between Meow Wolf and artists involved in the Santa Fe and Denver locations, though neither side will discuss the suits or their resolutions. There have been reports that Meow Wolf has employees sign nondisclosure agreements. That is very bad; unless you are a “vague but menacing goverment agency” (a phrase I stole from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast), NDAs are a bad idea. The major result of the suits was the resignation of CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek, and the hiring of outside executives to fill top positions: Chief Creative Officer Ali Rubinstein, Chief Financial Officer Carl Christensen, and Chief of Content Jim Ward. Rubinstein worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, Ward at LucasArts and Lucasfilm, so they could bring a more professional approach to administration; Christensen has worked at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere.
Indoor trees, with a peek at the arcade in the back. Photo by Lindsey Kennedy from Meow Wolf’s website.
My Off-Off-Broadway comparison is flawed, I know. Meow Wolf’s ticket price ($30 per adult in Santa Fe; Las Vegas is expected to cost $35) is more than major art museums cost. I skipped buying a tee shirt at the shop ($25) though that’s not more than museum shops charge. If you price people out, the term populist, which I used earlier, is questionable.
I liked Meow Wolf. I went in without expectations or requirements, allowing it to tell its story in its own way. I will probably go again, and visit at least some of the other locations as they open. Success in art is best judged by throwing finance out the window, so let’s forget about Meow Wolf’s profits or its grand expansion plans. If people come out of Meow Wolf inspired, whether to make art themselves or just see more art, that is the most honest kind of success. The challenge for Meow Wolf is to grow without becoming rigid (god save us from an official Meow Wolf style) and continue to seek out and encourage artists who are underserved by the gallery/museum system.