Our documentarians faced a rare challenge when they were tasked with telling our Origin Story, which released in over 600 theaters throughout 49 states late November. Directors Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller had over ten years of footage to craft from—mostly scratchy, lo-fi cellphone videos of early shows and hangouts—as well as two years of interviews, conducted when we were building House of Eternal Return, and afterwards, when our surprise success took us all from junk-collecting, warehouse artists to a multimillion dollar business employing hundreds of creatives.
While the film was being made, we had some dozen artists on staff who we often struggled to pay, along with hundreds of volunteers who put together their skills—in technology, sound, sculpture, welding, video, lighting, et cetera—to create something unprecedented. By the time Meow Wolf: Origin Story premiered at South by Southwest in spring of 2018, the “beast” (as it’s portrayed in the film) of Meow Wolf had extended its tendrils to legitimately employ hundreds of creatives. Now, we’re a 425-person company and growing, headed to Las Vegas and Denver to create new exhibitions.
Meow Wolf has focused on two things from the start: immersive experiences and collaborative processes. Early projects inspired local reporters to liken them to the science fiction stories of William Gibson—or rather the settings of Gibson’s stories’—come to life. There have always been buttons and levers and sounds and performances. There has always been a level of detail that is testament to the handmade. And there has always been a story. To achieve what we imagined, we’d needed far more than a handful of artists.
One of our earliest shows, Biome Nero Norb, was described as: “a time-, labor-, material- and imagination-intensive project that has emerged, like a vagabond laboratory from a century away, to churn out strange noises, bizarre lights, brazen fictions…” (Alex de Vore, Santa Fe Reporter, 2008).
As Matt King, one of our founders, says in the documentary about those early days: “It was this really liberating moment … these ideas were just coming naturally, as though they wanted to be built, and we were the medium at that point.”
It took a few “guardian angels” along the way, including notice from a local gallerist and then a museum curator, who hosted us to take over the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe in 2011. It was the Due Return—an enormous ship replete with interdimensional time travel experience of those on board—that led our group to realize, as our now-CEO, Vince Kadlubek, says, “we had a product on our hands.”
But the struggle of any creative group, it seems, is staying together. Due Return made $125,000 on donations, which shocked us and sent our anarchic tendencies into spiral. Kadlubek suggested creating a business, but there was disagreement. Many in the group did not want leadership or structure. And money meant both. Plus, people were burned out after the massive installation, and their independent creative lives tugged at them. Many left Santa Fe all together.
As the documentary reveals, it was tragedy that brought us back together. In 2014, we lost a member of our Meow Wolf family, David Loughridge. A photographer and driving force of positivity and empathy in the group, our love for David re-congealed us. He’d long said we should one day have a permanent exhibition and even joked once to Kadlubek: What if we got George R. R. Martin to invest?
Loughridge had planted a seed. First in grief and then in determination, we regrouped to hatch our most ambitious project yet. Kadlubek did pitch the idea to Santa Fe resident and Game of Thrones master, George R. R. Martin. We wanted to take over a defunct bowling alley and turn it into another world. As Martin says in the documentary, “the Victorian house lost in time and space, other dimensions, other times, a secret story that you would have to decipher … he was pushing all my buttons there.”
Martin backed us, and after 14 months of grueling labor and creation by many hundreds of artists and volunteers, that bowling alley became House of Eternal Return, a booming New Mexico destination recently ranked one of the top four things to do in the world by TimeOut. This year, we celebrated our millionth visitor to the space. Now, we’re positioned to financially support ourselves and, we hope, to share this model with creatives in other cities.
Meow Wolf is today only what it has ever been: the best possible happenstance when a group of disparate personalities overcome their differences to create something bigger than themselves. As co-founder Benji Geary says in the documentary, we were “metaphorically burning down some kind of old system and having a hyper new like neo-phoenix of what art can be, rising out of the ashes.”
Meow Wolf artists have always been dedicated. We’ve always been reactive to one another’s talent and imagination, and we have improved through shared experience creation. But it is in the edges that do not overlap, the spaces where the artists are irreparably and wonderfully themselves, that the art of Meow Wolf becomes apparent. We do not find the vision of one artist or engineer or world-builder in the final product; we find many.
Like us, our documentary is multivocal, a bit chaotic, and most of all, hopeful. Meow Wolf isn’t just about experience. It is, like the very process that creates it, about our experiences alongside one another. Most importantly, our art becomes the experiences of our audiences. After all, to share is to learn more, feel more, grow more, and bond.
Through it all, we hope to stay rooted in where we come from: a group of artists and friends who just wanted to make something new.
Watch our documentary here.
Additional contributors to this story were Christopher Johnson and Christina Procter.