Meow Wolf: A Novel Model for Artists on the Fringe

Meow Wolf: A Novel Model for Artists on the Fringe

Meow Wolf emerged blazing from the ashes of the Western art incubator that is Santa Fe, NM. Now a 50-million-dollar arts and entertainment group, Meow Wolf began as an art collective in 2008. The original core of roughly ten artists established the group to support one another’s art practices in Santa Fe’s formalized art market: though reported by the city’s tourism bureau as the third largest in the United States and having once boasted artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Andrew Dasburg, it seemed an alienated offshoot of the American art world. Meow Wolf bounded together to construct imaginative and story-driven installations that soon caught the attention of the local art community and eventually the region. The collective’s punk beginning morphed into a profitable model for artists on the fringe of the art market with a revolutionary model that shatters preconceptions of art through 8,000 sqm of immersive installations. Their current permanent work based in Santa Fe, titled The House of Return, is connected by an intricate narrative that breaks space and time for the benefit of visitors of all ages.

Meow Wolf first channeled their drive to challenge ideas of art into paintings that soon became sculptures, then assemblages, and eventually grew into immersive installations. To begin, the artists rented a modest space to collaborate – soon outgrown as their novel approach gained traction in the local art community. Gallery owner Linda Durham invited the collective to recreate their installation, GEODEcadent, in her gallery. This commission eventually led to a more complex show at the Center of Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, where Meow Wolf constructed a large-scale ship that visitors could board and wander through alien fauna, glowing trees, cliff dwellings, and archive libraries to a soundtrack of singing creatures. The press release described the installation’s mission as a “rejection of any sense of the preciousness of the art object; it is a cultural phenomenon that reflects the raw energy of the youthful collective that made it.”

Meow Wolf’s initial approach was rooted in alternative culture, and anti-commercial sentiments; however, with a large group of creative contributors come diverse opinions about growth. For the first time, the collective had capital from donations; some members realized that to sustain their passion, avoid burnout, and reach a broader audience, they needed to rethink their operating model. They wanted to create something permanent and massive.

Almost in spite of their rapid ascent, the collective’s collaborative storytelling practice propelling the artists’ creative process persists throughout the history of Meow Wolf. Their first permanent installation, The House of the Return, is no exception: dozens of rooms and secret passages tell the mystery of the Selig family, who vanished after conducting a forbidden experiment inside their Victorian mansion. To fund their science-fiction fantasy, Meow Wolf approached local author who penned Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin.

Meow Wolf’s complex opened to the public in 2016. Visitors enter through a Victorian house that then unfolds into an intergalactic universe of rabbit holes, colorful caverns, flashing tunnels, luminous tree houses, dance alcoves, and space stations. Clues to the overarching narrative linger in each room: letters, drawings, photographs, and other forms of material culture.

The scale of the project, its multi-sensory approach, and the intricate imagination of a collective creative genius spawn an enchanting experience unlike any other. Even upon first entering, it is clear that one person alone could not have divined the expanse of inventive imagery. It gives pause to think of what art history might have achieved had a more synergetic process been valued instead of the brilliance of the individual artist, such as Magritte or Salvador Dali. What if the surrealists had only worked in collaborative unison?

Meow Wolf continues to broaden the definition of art and shake up the art world. They are doing what they always intended to do – now sustainably and profitably. The founders are expanding to cities all over the United States, including Las Vegas (2019), Denver (2020), and Washington D.C (2022), to provide artists nationwide with the chance to find creative liberation under their narrative umbrella. Meow Wolf recently created a documentary, Meow Wolf: Origin Story, which chronicles their history and presents their future; available for download on their website.