By Josiah Hesse
There is an old cliche that “real” artists aren’t interested in making money. Or that if you are focused on making money, you must be a shit artist. Sometimes things do play out that way, leading to great talents being ripped off, and hacks making a killing on hotel room art. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Vince Kadlubek, co-founder and CEO of the Santa Fe, New Mexico art collective Meow Wolf.
Since its inception in 2008 as an underground music and arts venue, Meow Wolf has set a new standard for what artists can accomplish when they pool their resources and aren’t afraid of playing a little footsie with capitalism. In 2016 the collective landed their first permanent space—a converted bowling alley owned by Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin—and there created the world-renowned exhibit, House of Eternal Return, which has hosted more than 400,000 visitors in less than two years.
Kadlubek has had no qualms about monetizing the popularity of Meow Wolf, and in turn his organization has been turning some of that capital into grants for various organizations, not least of all Denver’s DIY arts community, who received a total $74,000 in the form of 20 different grants just this year.
We recently spoke with Kadlubek about Meow Wolf’s upcoming plans for a Denver location, what our arts community can learn about the success they’ve had in Santa Fe, and why getting along with business and government doesn’t have to kill your creativity.
For those that don’t know, what is Meow Wolf?
Meow Wolf is a creative company that grew out of an art collective. Our main product, the thing we like to create the most, are immersive exhibitions. We’ve done around 30 temporary exhibits, but we have a permanent one in Santa Fe.
But we’re also in entertainment media, AR, VR stuff. We’re looking to do feature films, documentaries, merchandising, product development, whatever. Our aim is to keep the spirit of the artist collective alive and open to whatever people are passionate about.
How much of Meow Wolf is an extension of Santa Fe and the arts culture down there?
It’s kind of based on Santa Fe in that it’s a psychedelic, weird, cyber-spiritual, culty, new age kinda thing. There’s a lot of Santa Fe influence on Meow Wolf, but there’s also a lot of national aesthetics we’re pulling from. We’re just doing what we’re doing.
In this age of income inequality, Meow Wolf seems to be pursuing a new economic model for artists and collectives. What can other artists communities learn from what you’re up to?
I think artists getting comfortable with business-minded people—and business-minded people getting comfortable with artists—is very important. That needs to happen if we want to have the arts and creativity survive in this economic climate. Artists need to apply some business-type thinking to their work.
Art exhibits get a lot of traffic, they’re an event that’s cultural and important and people want to be there. And yet it’s considered totally wrong to charge admission to an art exhibit—that mentality needs to change. I could have four thousand people lined up outside the door to see my paintings, but if no one’s buying them and everyone just wants to be there at the event, then I need to rethink this and consider charging everyone five bucks. Because there’s a valuable exchange happening there.
In addition to a distrust with the business community, in Denver the DIY community has a strong apprehension toward working with city officials. Do you think it’s possible for underground communities to have a good relationship with the city without losing the culture, politics and lifestyle that make them what they are?
I don’t see it as a need to balance to strike, or compromise. What you’re seeing in Denver is an issue with fire codes: An inspection from the city on DIY spaces finds that they’re not up to code and everyone gets kicked out. The honest truth of it is that artists don’t want to live in spaces that aren’t up to code, and the city doesn’t want to kick artists out—so there is some common ground there.
From my perspective, the conversations and progress happening in Denver on this issue are far beyond most any major city in the country. Denver is having the most upfront, honest attempts on both sides to make this situation right.
Rumors have been circulating for some time about a permanent Meow Wolf instillation in Denver. What can you tell us about that?
Denver is at the top of the list of cities that we want to go to. We’re still working it out. We’re trying to find a large piece of real estate where we can do a badass exhibit, and real estate in Denver is complicated and expensive. I think we’ll have a space locked in soon, but there’s a lot of work to do even after that. We’d like to announce something in November.
How can ambitious art projects like Meow Wolf serve as an antidote to all the damage that gentrification has wrought on the Denver arts community?
When money pours in from the tech industry, or marijuana industry, or whatever, artists can’t keep up, they get priced out of their own neighborhoods, and their art spaces get turned into high rise condos.
But it’s not going to be solved by slowing the economic growth of a city. Artists and creative industries need to be able to keep up with the economic growth curves, so that artists aren’t poor. And that’s the problem here: artists don’t have work. The world doesn’t value artists, businesses don’t value artists, and cities don’t value artists.
So our hope [with Meow Wolf] is to show the economic value of artists. And hopefully artists can start to represent themselves in ways that produce value. And new businesses can be developed that are dedicated to supporting creatives. So hopefully artists can start getting bigger paychecks. And with bigger paychecks they can keep up with the economic growth curves of the city.