In April 2020, in the throes of the early pandemic, the immersive arts production company Meow Wolf laid off over half its staff, leaving it with fewer than 200 employees. Its wildly popular Santa Fe exhibition, House of Eternal Return, had been closed indefinitely. Its expansion plans—which at the time included since-cancelled locations in Phoenix and Washington, D.C.—were all in limbo.
Fast forward to today, the art collective-turned incorporated art company has grown to include four locations that attracted three million visitors in 2022. The newest outpost, the Real Unreal, opened last week in the Grapevine Mills shopping mall outside of Dallas, Texas. Their staff numbers rebounded and the team now numbers 1,200 strong. The company is now working on a 2024 expansion to Houston, as well as an app, a virtual reality games, and a graphic novel.
And despite the grand scale at which Meow Wolf is working, it doesn’t detract from the art. Exploring a Meow Wolf exhibition is almost like playing an open server video game: There’s the main storyline, which you can experience from start to finish, plus the smaller side quests. There’s also considerable enjoyment to be had just in taking in the environment, appreciating the beauty and detail of each corner.
“There’s no wrong way to experience the Real Unreal—and there’s a story inside, if you’d like to find it,” Dale Sheehan, the exhibition’s executive creative director, who came to Meow Wolf in 2019 after a decade with Walt Disney Imagineering, told Artnet News.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that company’s transformation over the last 15 years is perhaps as unlikely as the science fiction-flavored universe its artists have concocted, where household appliances become portals to strange worlds.
The original Meow Wolf was a ragtag crew of anarchic artists—many of whom had never held a full-time job—throwing warehouse ragers featuring their handcrafted art installations built largely from trash. Then, author George R.R. Martin, a Santa Fe local, agreed to inject $3 million to buy and renovate a former bowling alley for the artists to rent and turn into a permanent exhibition.
Meow Wolf, which incorporated in 2014, put everything it had into that project, leaving it with just $1,000 in its bank account by the time House of Eternal Return opened. But their crazy art fun house paid off, resonating with visitors. Some 318,000 people came in the first year alone, which generated a $5.35 million in revenue—not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in further investments. The collective was suddenly big business.
With new sites in Las Vegas and Denver—where one will now find the Omega Mart and the Convergence Station—on the horizon and over $250 million raised, Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek stepped down as CEO in 2019 to allow more experienced hands to guide the company’s explosive growth. Former Viacom executive Jose Tolosa took the reins 18 months ago, and has since hired seven seasoned industry professionals into senior leadership roles.
Of course, there have been growing pains as the company has sought to balance its idealistic roots with its outsized ambitions, which include opening some 15 to 20 new locations in the U.S. and internationally.
There was a fitful unionization campaign in 2020 that has since seen contracts approved at both the Santa Fe and Denver locations, as well as a pending legal battle with artist Lauren Adele Oliver, who claims she was not properly compensated with a promised revenue share for her contribution to House of Eternal Return. (Outside artist collaborators, of which there were about 40 at Grapevine, are now paid a flat fee for their work, and receive 50 percent of the proceeds from any of their merchandise sales.) And there’s also been personal tragedy. Co-founder Matt King died by suicide last summer at the age of 37.
The new permanent exhibition in Texas has largely become a tribute to King, whose creativity and dedication to Meow Wolf’s unique vision was a major driving force behind the first three locations and the business as a whole. The Real Unreal includes a new take on King’s Glowquarium, a black light coral forest that was among the most memorable moments at House of Eternal Return.
That’s just one of a plethora of otherworldly environments in the 29,000-square-foot exhibition. Woven seamlessly into the display are contributions from 40 artist collaborators, 30 of whom hail from Texas, selected with input from Dallas muralist Will Heron, the Grapevine artist liason.
Local artist, Dan Lam, who grew up in the Dallas-Worth Worth area, contributed a melting, rainbow-colored wall titled to the exhibition that measures 15-by-15 feet—nearly twice as big as any work she’s ever done before. She also worked with Meow Wolf’s lighting technicians and senior sound creative lead Benjamin Wright to create a soundtrack and lighting design to complete the installation.
“I wanted to make an intentionally trippy experience. Under the lights, the colors shift and it looks like it might be moving,” Lam told Artnet News.
It remains to be seen whether the broader Dallas art community—which includes some of the art world’s richest and most-knowlegeable collectors—will embrace Meow Wolf’s unconventional, offbeat approach to art making, but the local artists who’ve helped bring the space to life seem to have nothing but good things to say about the experience.
“There’s criticism that it’s a theme park or entertainment, but you know what? People want to have fun,” Lam said.
The Real Unreal also comes with an original story, courtesy of Wisconsin sci-fi and fantasy author LaShawn Wanak. The tale features a Black family with queer characters and a young son that goes missing. (Some Meow Wolf fans have criticized the company for opening in Texas, given the state’s anti-LGTBQ politics, but the organization envisions the Real Unreal as a safe space for members of that community.)
There have also been little hints that each of Meow Wolf’s location is part of a shared universe, but that’s become more overt at the Real Unreal, where the residential setting immediately recalls the Santa Fe flagship. Both spaces start with a family home that appears normal at first glance, but is warped around the edges. Some entry points to the exhibition’s fantastical realms—including passages through the refrigerator, washing machine, and dryer—revisit memorable moments from the House of Eternal Return. There are new, expanded versions of some of the other greatest hits from Santa Fe, such as the interactive Forest Mushrooms.
The hope is that Meow Wolf can revisit old themes without sacrificing originality, reincorporating beloved installations into new settings as its multiverse grows. Such an endeavor works in large part because, when it comes to bringing these worlds to life, a core group of artists from the Meow Wolf stable continues to be at the heart of the operation.
“The art team task force is this elite squad we have,” co-founder and artist Benji Geary told Artnet News. “When you’re on site, you realize ‘here’s some damn corner that needs something.’ It’s like, ‘that needs an extra green squiggle,’ and they’re like ‘yes it does.’ That happens all the time.”
“It’s all about being able to work together collaboratively and trust each other,” senior artist Sofia Howard added, noting that the crew grows at each new exhibition. “We get to be weird and spontaneous and goofy—and we cry with each other a lot too. We don’t want to be a factory. We want to make art with out friends that our communities feel connected to, and are inspired by to make their own art.”
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