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Meow Wolf: Inside the Insane Psych Art Collective Taking Over the World

Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

A roomful of strangers are milling around the kitchen of an austere Victorian home when the first portal opens. It’s in the refrigerator. A family walks up to it and is swallowed whole by its comforting glow. As the door begins to creak shut, a young woman in a polka-dot skirt skips up to catch it. “Are you coming to The Gathering?” she smiles. “Come on — follow me.”

Telaportative fridges, a Flintstones-style mastodon skeleton marimba, impromptu trapeze shows — it’s all commonplace in the House of Eternal Return, a 20,000-square-foot, wormhole-riddled art playhouse from Meow Wolf, the scrappy Santa Fe, New Mexico, art-collective-turned-conglomerate that’s poised to plunge the country into the multiverse, one WTF moment at a time.

In two years, the House has transformed Meow Wolf from a cadre of broke creatives into a 400-employee-strong organization with a fundraising clip on par with tech startups — and a shot at upending the art and entertainment industries as we know them. That starts in the coming months, as Meow Wolf readies its first expansion: an “experience shopping mall” set in a trippy art bazaar in Las Vegas called Area 15, poised to open next year. Then it’s on to Denver, where it’ll hatch a $60 million, 90,000-square-foot immersive art park in 2020 followed by a permanent exhibit in Washington, D.C. in 2022.

Though some more-traditional gatekeepers might fear it, Meow Wolf’s ascendance is hard to deny. Even as he bemoaned the consequences of its “admissions-based model,” critic Ben Davis coined a genre for the movement: Big Fun Art. Coming from a critic, that doubles as a back-handed compliment. But the need for shorthand says more than the name itself. “I have seen the future of art,” Davis wrote. “That future has a name, and it is an unlikely one: Meow Wolf.”

But first, Meow Wolf is stretching its tentacles into your living room. This year, Nicolas Gonda, the film producer behind Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World, signed on to head Meow Wolf Entertainment, which is already working full-tilt on 30 projects aimed at streaming services and theaters. (Its first entry, a behind-the-scenes documentary called Meow Wolf: Origin Story, hit theaters nationwide last November.)

Meow Wolf’s art takeover falls on the shoulders of Vince Kadlubek, the company’s 36-year-old CEO. Once a hard-partying poet, Kadlubek is typically boardroom-ready these days. In a black sweater and half-rim glasses, he has the cut of a Silicon Valley brand guru with less discernible ego, somehow both no-nonsense and prone to wading into diatribes on ontology, systemic racism and his painful past.

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Vince Kadlubek, CEO of Meow Wolf with Christian Ristrow’s Becoming Human Sculpture.
Photo credit: Kate Russell/meowwolf.com
Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

“Before 2014, I not only didn’t have any experience in business, I had very little interest,” Kadlubek says, sitting outside a Santa Fe cocktail bar on a humid afternoon. “I was making $12,000 a year, if I was lucky, delivering food and waiting tables. I was thinking about how to scam the system…. To fall into having to run a legitimate business, it’s such a mind-fuck.”

Kadlubek traces his unlikely trajectory to one night six years ago. He was sitting in a Santa Fe jail cell, poised to lose control of the momentum Meow Wolf had built from its 2011 exhibit, The Due Return, which turned heads in the art world. Kadlubek was working for a nonprofit arts organization that taught Santa Fe public school kids and was barely making ends meet. When it didn’t, he took a trip to Walmart to steal video games to sell for extra cash.

“That was the first time that I had really tried to steal anything as a way of making money,” he says. “Nobody had money.”

A Santa Fe police officer caught him and called it in. Kadlubek pleaded with him to look the other way — he was teaching a class the following morning and would miss it if he was in jail. It was too late for the sympathetic cop to let him off, but Kadlubek claims the officer vowed to get him out as fast as he could. He testified in court; the charges against Kadlubek were dropped.

“After that, I was like, ‘I’m done with this,’ ” Kadlubek tells Rolling Stone. “I can honestly say I’ve not stolen a thing in six years.”

Since then, Kadlubek has proved a natural leader, steering Meow Wolf from the brink of extinction to multimillion-dollar rounds of fundraising. And that’s with his past on the table: In the interest of transparency — shoplifting is technically a financial crime, after all — Kadlubek comes clean about the stolen games to Meow Wolf’s potential investors.

They’ve fallen for Kadlubek regardless, and it’s easy to see why: If Meow Wolf can turn $6.8 million in revenue in its first year in Santa Fe, imagine what it could do in a city like Denver or Washington, D.C.

In a bit of dramatic irony, these DIY kids could be the saviors of the ultimate bastion of capitalism: the shopping mall. Meow Wolf teamed with high-profile real estate developers Fisher Brothers for its Las Vegas installation. With Meow Wolf as its anchor tenant, the company plans to revive the mall by selling one of the few things you truly can’t get online: immersive experiences.

“It’s a shopping mall for a new generation — a generation of people who value experience over possession,” says Meow Wolf co-founder and VP of experience design Corvas Brinkerhoff. “If Area 15 goes well, we might build 50 of them in the next 10 years.”

Last month, Meow Wolf unveiled an early look at what these experience malls could have in store. The Navigator, an SUV-size spiderlike robot with a human cockpit, is a so-called “cross-reality” experience based on technology from highly secretive tech company Magic Leap. The company specializes in augmented reality, a wearable device that overlays digital data over top of the natural world, creating a seamless mix of virtual and physical worlds for anyone wearing its headset.

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Meow Wolf and Magnopus bring the Navigator to the Magic Leap conference in Los Angeles.
Photo credit: Kate Russell/meowwolf.com
Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

Eventually, Meow Wolf could use the tech to take the frames off of its experiences completely. “Meow Wolf is a one-off weekend attraction, and then you go back to your real life,” Kadlubek says. “I want someone to — if they want to — live in a continuous stream of Meow Wolf, and build an infrastructure to allow for that.”

But before they can turn your couch into a jump seat, Kadlubek and Co. have to prove their Santa Fe experiment isn’t a fluke. On the outskirts of the city, the first step toward that end is lying on a factory floor. The two-story structure is called the Cathedral — a sanctuary from another world, complete with its own gang of bizarre gargoyles (one is part walrus, holding a mop and bucket like some janitorial saint) eying their roost from across the floor. A technicolored dome the size of a Volkswagen Beetle glows under the factory’s fluorescent lights. Below it, an altar, soon to be decked out with a functional pipe organ. Once everything’s in place, the stained-plastic-glass dome will be connected to a rotary disc that will spin it like a giant kaleidoscope.

While the Cathedral is about half the size of the otherworldly house at the center of Meow Wolf’s Santa Fe exhibit, it’s just one of hundreds of pieces that will make up the group’s next great freakout, set for Denver. It also represents a major level-up from the group’s papier-mâché DIY days. “The sophistication of the sculpture is 50 times more complex than anything else we’ve built before,” Kadlubek says.

“Time has dilated for us,” Brinkerhoff says. He’s sitting in a makeshift patio behind the factory where Meow Wolf’s storm of ideas are hammered into reality. Housed in a former manufacturing plant for Caterpillar construction equipment, they call it the Caterpillar Factory.

“We opened House of Eternal Return and made a big splash in the media and people’s minds,” Brinkerhoff says. “But it was still really hard to tell how big this thing was. Is this a Santa Fe thing? A New Mexico thing? Now, it’s like, no, this is a whole-world thing.”

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The Cathedral for the Ice World, a part of the Meow Wolf Denver exhibit.
Photograph by Kate Russell/meowwolf.com
Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

In a vintage startup scene, a few twentysomethings introduce themselves over cigarettes and sandwiches behind Brinkerhoff’s shoulder. “Most of these people are probably like, ‘What is this weird job I have now?’ ”

Brinkerhoff is still getting used to the concept of Meow Wolf as a job too. Meow Wolf has been around for a decade, and most of that time, the closest thing it had to an HR department were cigarette breaks. The group formed in 2008 when 10 friends who had been frozen out of Santa Fe’s turquoise-and-silver art scene decided to rent a warehouse for their own art shows, parties and punk concerts. They divvied up the $1,000-a-month rent and literally picked the name for the space out of two hats: “Meow” from one and “Wolf” from the other. It stuck.

The group’s art experiments weren’t always pretty, or necessarily up to code. Biome Neuro Norb, Meow Wolf’s first group installation, embraced what Space Ship Earth’s transformation into Trash Heap Earth might look like, envisioning a found-art wonderland full of zip-tied trash, mannequin heads and anything else they could scavenge from dumpster dives at their local Salvation Army.

Its ranks swelled on pace with its ambition, topping 50 members by 2011. That year, it launched The Due Return, a life-size wooden ship that dropped anchor in Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Art for two months after an “inter-dimensional journey.” It was a gargantuan effort — the space pirate ship took around 6,000 hours to construct — with a commensurately heavy hangover. In the years to follow, exhaustion and infighting consumed the group.

Tragedy pulled Meow Wolf back from the brink. In January 2014, core Meow Wolf member David Loughridge had just completed his last round of electroshock therapy, a treatment for his bipolar disorder, when he fell into a coma. Meow Wolf members rallied around Loughridge, who died the following day at age 33.

“There were 50 people in the waiting room, all sitting in a circle as we had in the past for meetings,” Kadlubek remembers. “There were a lot of broken relationships in that room — people not on good standing with each other. But we were all there, saying goodbye to our friend in a coma knowing he was going to pass.”

That year, members of Meow Wolf organized an exhibit-cum-memorial for Loughridge and the enclave as a whole. Moving Still detailed both the life and fearless art of their friend and the numerous installations they’d created together. On a drive down to New Orleans, the group started to spitball something Loughridge had pushed for: What would it look like if they did another big exhibit? And what if this time it was permanent?

“The House of Eternal Return was brainstormed on that road trip,” Kadlubek says. The show would reflect on resurrection — death not as the end, but a barrier no different than any of the House’s mysterious doors to other unknown worlds. “We were driven by David’s spirit,” Kadlubek says.

To get it done, Kadlubek needed to snap up Meow Wolf’s latest DIY space. Venture capitalists typically don’t spring for abandoned bowling alleys or DIY art parks. But apparently, fantasy novelists do. Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, who lives in Santa Fe, would become their landlord, investing $3 million to buy and renovate the space in the process.

“Predicting the future of art or entertainment is very difficult at this point in time,” Martin tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t know what’s going to be here when the dust settles. But I think Meow Wolf has created enough that they may emerge as one of the big leaders in that area.”

The gamble paid off. The House of Eternal Return became an instant obsession, drawing 400,000 visitors, or nearly six times the population of Santa Fe, in its first year.

Neko Case, who remembers getting swept up in the exhibit alongside a group of kids, was one of them. “I was just as excited as the kids were,” Case remembers. “I felt like one of them, it was so much fun. It makes you feel like art and imagination are so possible and not out of reach to us.”

“When I hear them talk about what they’re doing, I get that itchy feeling in my gut,” says Shakey Graves’ Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who played a Meow Wolf venue earlier this year. “Like I don’t know how, but I have to get on this train. It makes me want to run away and join the circus.”

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Shakey Graves perform at Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
Photograph by Kate Russell/meowwolf.com
Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

Today, Meow Wolf is already bigger and more capital-s Serious than its founders could have imagined. At the Caterpillar Factory’s reception desk, which is manned by a gnarled crumple of metal and lights named OOURG, visitors are required to sign an NDA displayed on a pair of iPads. The offices beyond feel like a cross between a Silicon Valley startup and the Factory, Andy Warhol’s New York City art loft. Alongside the manufacturing floor stretches a long bunker of sofas and workbenches, littered with blueprints for musical beasts, chunks of broken mirror and loose cigarettes. The word “cosmohedron” is circled on a whiteboard near a fleshy, glistening wall sculpture.

The building is organized chaos. True to its DIY ethos, nearly all traditional corporate terminology at Meow Wolf has been whimsy’d up. (All-staff meetings are called “all shrimps”; managers are “time worms.”) A man in a fake mustache and gas-station sunglasses spends 10 minutes painting a support beam orange. A pair of millennial artists are days into what sounds like an excruciating months-long project that has them melting long strips of plastic into otherworldly leaves. It’s tedious, they admit. But, hey: They’re actually getting paid to make art.

That might be the most obtuse part about these gigs — not what they’re doing, but that they’re jobs at all. Meow Wolf employs hundreds of craft artists — metal fabricators, costumers, architects, painters and performance artists, for example — commodifying raw creativity as if it were any blue-collar skill. It’s difficult to make a living as a middle-class artist, but Meow Wolf hopes to change that. “We’d like Meow Wolf to be the largest employer of artists in the world,” Brinkerhoff says.

The core creative chiefs of the company know firsthand how undervalued and marginalized artists are, even within the art community, and they’re aiming to pay their success forward across the country. At least 40 percent of the art in Meow Wolf’s Denver project will be commissioned from Denver artists, a model the company will look to replicate in other cities. Artists in non-Meow Wolf communities can get in on the action, too. Last year, the company created a fund for DIY spaces that gave $215,000 to 106 venues.

Still, not everyone is embracing the company’s arrival. Even as they take its money, some Denver artists fear that Meow Wolf is just another force of gentrification in the city, swooping into a low-income neighborhood to take advantage of Denver’s booming economy at the expense of its homegrown culture. Two DIY art spaces printed their frustration in succinct bumper-stickers: “CASA BONITA IS BETTER THAN MEOW WOLF,” a reference to the South Park-famous Denver institution that marries Mexican food with hokey Aztec environs and cliff diving. “Denver fought in a way that no other city did,” Kadlubek says.

For its part, Meow Wolf has made strides to be a good neighbor. As part of a detailed corporate responsibility plan, it’s met monthly with a community advisory committee consisting of artists and community leaders from its location’s Sun Valley neighborhood. This year, it’s donated at least $250,000 to Denver non-profits, projects and events, and plans to donate additional $250,000 in 2019.

Still, the established art world has only tentatively embraced Meow Wolf. Critics paint it as exhibit Z in Boomers’ ongoing trial of the millennial as culture killer, as vacuous and suspiciously eager to please as a selfie park. But the group has had an easier time earning the trust of the high-profile artists that swing through its venue on tour. Wayne Coyne, the frontman of the Flaming Lips, installed a giant musical psychedelic tree in the lobby of the House of Eternal Return earlier this year. The kinship makes sense: The groups share an aesthetic (color-hungry, bat-shit psychedelia) and a preference for hands-on art experiences that roll off the stage.

“I don’t like going to shows where once the band starts to play, you have to shut up and pay attention,” Coyne says. “It’s an isolated experience. Meow Wolf and Flaming Lips aren’t like that. We want you all messing with each other the whole time.”

But, of course, it’s the true outsiders who have found the most meaning in Meow Wolf. Golda Blaise dropped out of high school in New Orleans before making her way to Santa Fe and falling in with the group in its early days. The group has been her family for years — “a way of life,” she says. Now, it’s even paying the bills.

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The Mastodon Marimba in Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
Photo credit: Kate Russell/meowwolf.com
Kate Russell/meowwolf.com

Artists are people, too. Money is essential. But like its constituent creatives, Meow Wolf’s inherent goal isn’t to make as much money as possible, but rather to use it to make the world a more creative and equitable place.

“We want to alter people’s ways of thinking and interacting with the world around them,” Blaise says. “We want to show people the weirdness of the world, to show them that it’s OK to embrace it.”

She mentions a scene in the House that I’ve seen some variation of play out several times: Two strangers, one old and one young, laughing together, transfixed by one of the exhibition’s set pieces. Therein lies the beauty and power at the core of Meow Wolf’s experiences. Strolling solo down an alien street market or joining a group of strangers crowded around a giant armless Yeti, any nearby human is an instant comfort. Whatever differences might separate you on the sidewalk dissolve in here.

If the medium is the message, Meow Wolf’s immersive experiences are anti-Internet: spaces where the other isn’t reduced to characters on a screen, but embellished to their full humanity. The exhibitions aren’t just fun playhouses, but tangible meditations on how we can shape the world around us into whatever we can imagine.

“That the world as we know can be radically subverted — that energizes everybody in the company,” Kadlubek says. “It energizes us because what we see in this world, what we call reality now, is filled with a lot of injustice and a lot of disproportionate privilege. It’s also kind of boring. Artists are not really part of the fabric. There are a lot of elements of this reality that we’d love to fuck with.”