The Meow Wolf artists collective, initially founded in 2008 “as an informal DIY collective of Santa Fe artists,” has had a successful last few years with the founding of their flagship branch in Santa Fe in 2016 and opening subsequent locations in Denver, Las Vegas and a recently announced location in Grapevine, Texas, according to their website. With this expansion in popularity and monetization comes questions of authenticity — is Meow Wolf still the homegrown art exhibit it started as in 2008?
Vice president of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective union and senior creative engineer of research and development of Meow Wolf Conor Peterson asks: “Do we make better art with more money or is there such a thing as selling out or going corporate? And does that water down the art experience?”
It’s a question that highlights the dissonance between the corporatized, capitalistic nature of running a business and the “anti-gallery,” anti-establishment ethos that was a guiding principle for Meow Wolf and continues to be a guidepost, according to Benji Geary, co-founder of Meow Wolf.
“We had this identity crisis (around expanding) of, ‘Oh no, that's gonna corrupt us,’ versus, ‘No, shouldn't this be what we do? Wouldn't you like to spend all your time doing this? And is there a way that we can sustain that and then get more cool brilliant artists who we know to do that too?’” Geary said.
Eli Behrens, a musician and student at the University of New Mexico studying psychology, echoed this sentiment as Meow Wolf becoming a “monetized entity” instead of a free or donation-based space has allowed the artistic expression to reach a new level. However, his issues with the corporation stem from their lack of inclusion of local artists in their more recent work.
“That's hard for me to stomach because I still want to engage in artistic expression, especially when it's put and held up at such a level with the funding and everything,” Behrens said.
The construction of “The House of Eternal Return” in Santa Fe differs from how the company approaches building the installations now, according to Peterson.
“What used to be the case, way back in the day … (is that) we would make our caves out of actual adobe dug from the ground in New Mexico. And then we started doing it with architectural compounds because it's more efficient to do it that way and less messy,” Peterson said. “Now we just pay people to do that kind of work for us because we don't like it at all … Even though, prior to the layoffs, we did almost all of the design and building and fabrication of everything in-house.”
The layoffs, which came during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in the loss of over half of Meow Wolf’s workers, severely impacting the production process. The pandemic also impacted Meow Wolf’s ability to incorporate local artists in their new installations, according to Geary.
“We really didn't have that many Las Vegas local artists because there were so many COVID restrictions and stuff at the time of getting external people to come in. So, it's (about) retroactively building those things in now that we're seeing opportunities to do so,” Geary said.
The discussion this far has been operating under the assumption of Meow Wolf being art, or being a space to interact with art. For Munia Omer, a musician and UNM student studying foreign languages, Meow Wolf tows the line between an experience and art in and of itself.
“The first time I went — I had a different understanding and approach to art, but it felt like more of an experience, almost, than it was art … Now, when I think about art — art is something that makes you think about how and why it was created, which I definitely did experience at Meow Wolf,” Omer said.
Get content from The Daily Lobo delivered to your inbox
The definition of Meow Wolf as entertainment or experience may intersect with the definition of art, according to Geary.
“Where does one start and the other begins (is) all up to this subjective interpretive layer of well, is this sacred or profane to me personally? That's so subjective too … But it depends on what art means to you,” Geary said.
Unionization efforts by artists started in 2020, and were met by resistance from ownership, according to New Mexico News Port. In 2022 the Union ratified a contract, according to the Santa Fe Reporter. Peterson argues that the unionization of Meow Wolf allows artists to collectively create art that aligns with their original process.
“Art doesn't get made in a clean corporate formula. Good art comes from a lot of self-development that people do, and it comes from culture and whatever social movements are happening … We think that the, the union coming from a collective place that echoes where Meow Wolf originally came from, and preserves whatever nucleus of culture that we have here to allow us to keep making art in the way that we have,” Peterson said.
This mentality of being against the institution founded Meow Wolf, and Geary said he welcomes the idea of raging against Meow Wolf if it were to become that institution.
“It's funny to think about these kinds of things, like, ‘Has Meow Wolf — this immersive experience of art — has that changed what people in the future might demand as art or expect art to be?’ … And how can that be? Something that was so anti-gallery, then … becomes the (institution). And that's why I really encourage people who are like, ‘Oh that sucks, I hate that … we're gonna start our own new thing,’ Geary said. “Cause that in itself is the very ethos that made this thing happen.”
Addison Key is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @addisonkey11
John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JohnSnott
Addison Key is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo and served as the Summer 2023 culture editor. She can be reached on Twitter @addisonkey11.