It’s been called “Disney Land for the Instagram age” and a sensory experience that “defies description.” Tucked in a former bowling alley miles away from the established art scene of Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, Meow Wolf is an immersive, eclectic art installation that is commanding the attention of connoisseurs, casual passers-by and experience-seekers from around the world—and growing rapidly in the process.
Truly, it would be hard to put a label on what, exactly, Meow Wolf is. At its core, it is a communal space for artists and creators of nearly every medium. Established in 2008, the organization has grown to more than 300 employees, including over 200 full-time artists and 80 operational staff. But that would be like describing the Taj Mahal in terms of nails and boards.
The lifeforce of Meow Wolf is its convention-defying, “massive, immersive, multimedia” installations. Impressive in their scope and style, these artworks employ everything from paint and sculpture to “cross-reality” and performance to achieve the surreal. They might be likened to an art gallery on psychedelics.
The most recent evolution of the space is a 20,000 square-foot “House of Eternal Return,” a sprawling showcase of otherworldliness and the first permanent installation. Introduced in 2016, the experiential-art encourages patrons to explore—literally, to rifle through papers, find a combination to a safe or open the fridge (spoiler: its contents aren’t sandwich makings).
As Curbed put it, descriptions don’t quite capture the Meow Wolf’s “hallucinatory weirdness.” That is intentional, the organization’s creative directors explain, who talk about the attractions with purposeful vagueness. The experience is part of the art itself—which could be said for nearly any arthouse, but it is taken to another level by Meow Wolf. That’s largely what distinguishes it from other modern, envelope-pushing conceptions, like San Francisco’s Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream.
Not surprisingly, Meow Wolf’s popularity has been propelled by social media. Hashtagged over 100,000 times and with nearly a quarter-million followers, Meow Wolf’s digital following is bit of a phenomenon in itself. But photos only scratch the surface.
“We’ve been called out as a place where people go to just take pictures for Instagram,” Caity Kennedy, a creative director, says. “By the very nature of it, they’re unable to see the other 80 percent of what’s in the space that is un-photographable, that’s un-Instagrammable.”
The intangible, you-had-to-be-there qualities make Meow Wolf so remarkable, and the company seems to embrace the quirkiness. Its websites notes, Meow Wolf “champions otherness, weirdness, challenging norms, radical inclusion, and the power of creativity to change the world.” That appeal attracted more than 400,000 guests in 2016, and visitation continues to grow.
Meow Wolf’s missions is nearly as innovative as its art. The organization is committed to community and to supporting artists. It offers an impressive benefits package to workers, including health insurance, gym memberships and classes at the local community college. This year, the company increased its minimum wage to $17 an hour, and it regularly works with local schools to bring art to life. Registered as a Public Benefit Corporation, Meow Wolf earned a solid B-rating for its community impact.
So where does an organization that thrives on creativity go from here? Buoyed by the House of Eternal Return’s success, Meow Wolf is launching exhibits across the country. This year it will introduce the Kaleidoscope, a “non-linear” amusement ride—yes, ride—that invites participants to form their own narrative. Other works are planned for Washington, D.C. in 2022 and Phoenix, Arizona.
This year Meow Wolf hired a new chief creative director, Ali Rubenstein, who previously spent 22 years with Disney where she most recently oversaw the company’s theme parks in Asia. “Here is this amazing company that is championing weirdness and otherness and inclusively,” she told a local news station. “This is a company that I think truly believes and truly can change the world through creativity.”