Local Artists and Ethical Expansion: A Conversation with our Director of Artist Collaboration

How we create each of our artist communities in Santa Fe, Denver, Las Vegas, and Grapevine, TX.

Ever wondered how Meow Wolf finds artists to collaborate with? Or how we grow community in cities where we build new locations? Get the low down from Han Santana-Sayles, Meow Wolf’s Director of Collaboration, who discusses our collaborating artist program and dives deep into the importance of being ethical when conducting outreach and building new locations in cities with existing art ecosystems and communities. Han explains the value of artists in being cultural historians of a region and reveals some exciting collaborations in the pipeline. Learn how collaboration and inclusivity are two of the creative values that guide Meow Wolf.

a female-presenting person with long dark hair and a blue checkered dress standing in front of a vibrant mural
Han Santana-Sayles, Director of Artist Collaboration at Meow Wolf. Photo by Shayla Blatchford

How long have you worked at Meow Wolf?

Five years now, I started at Meow Wolf in January 2018.

What do you do at Meow Wolf?

My title is Director of Artist Collaboration. I’m responsible for running our collaborating artist program– we recruit and support diverse, emerging to mid-career, hyper-talented artists across the country, guiding them from the inception through the implementation of their artwork in our exhibits. Basically, I’m a curator!

What's your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is traveling to new cities. I get to go ahead of the team to do early research on artist communities. I explore the existing community in a given city to find awesome collaborators for our exhibits. It’s a big social exercise– I run around town between different nonprofits that support artists, to individual artist studios, to more underground DIY space, and to gallery openings. I get to play detective and build our artist lists before anyone knows I’m there. 

One of the most beautiful things (the reason I also love working locally) is that artists are often the cultural historians of a region; they hold the aesthetic values of a particular place along with deep-rooted knowledge about the socio-political context of their locations. I love for Meow Wolf exhibits to be in conversation with whatever these artists bring to the table. I’m always learning about people, and therefore deeping my own understanding of the human experience. 

bright purple ancestral beings against dark walls with white face masks hanging from the ceiling inside House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe
The Ancestral Crypt by Lauren YS inside Meow Wolf Santa Fe. Photo by Atlas Media

How are you building community?

Once we have settled on our artist cohort for a particular city, we will host frequent events for these folks to connect with each other in addition to events that connect them to our Meow Wolf artists. They are brought into a fold of other installation artists in their city (and from Santa Fe) who are all building this wild, ambitious, and complex project together. I’ve seen a beautiful community form around the collaborating artists working on The Real Unreal over the course of our collaboration. There is a real sense of mutual respect and admiration present– there is nothing quite like long days on a construction site to seal the deal on a friendship!

Outside of these artists connecting with each other, our marketing team plays a huge role in propelling emerging artists on our social media platforms. We draw them into our circle of “Meow Wolf” at large, where we have 2.7 million visitors across all our exhibits in a year who will either interface with their work in our exhibits or be able to follow these new creatives on their own socials. Our marketing team will land artists great features that may lead to their next big commission or to a connection with another artist who admires their work. 

At each exhibit location, we have an “Artist Liaison” who continues our engagement with each artist cohort in their city so that Meow Wolf’s involvement isn’t a one-off engagement but a supportive institution in a given city’s art ecosystem. These artist liaisons host gallery exhibits (outside of Meow Wolf) for our artists, commission public artworks in each city, and host panels with our collaborators. Each of them strives to enhance their city as they are all locals themselves. Shoutout to the amazing team: Robin Slonina at Omega Mart, Annie Geimer at Convergence Station (now being led by Brandon Vargas) and Will Heron on our Grapevine project. This group of individuals continues to find new ways for us to engage with our existing artist cohorts and they create new ways to support new, local artists in each city. I could write a whole article about their work!

one female-presenting person with long dark hair speaking with another female-presenting person with cropped grey hair standing in a classroom speaking to each other
Han Santana-Sayles meeting with a community member. Photo by Jada Imani

What criteria do you seek when working with an artist?

We have some creative values that guide Meow Wolf: kaleidoscopic, maximal, mind-bending, unexpected, collaborative and inclusive. Ultimately, I seek artists that are doing their own thing really well. Luckily, Meow Wolf is a very broad container that allows for vast blurred edges. I want to work with artists who I am inspired by and who I feel confident would contribute meaningful work to our exhibit. I need to see a strong portfolio of existing work in their style and often I’m seeking to keep the rails of our curation local so the criteria would be within the city or state of a given exhibit. It also goes a really long way when an artist is recommended by another person. 

Part of how I find artists is by hiring curators or consultants who are local to help me build lists; their recommendations about an individual’s reputation in terms of how they work well with others matters in my decision-making because we are a highly collaborative company. Many artists are not used to someone inspecting every single object they might put into an exhibit for fire-safe materials but the way we are restricted just by building code requires a certain disposition of flexibility and collaboration. At the end of the day, we want to protect the artists’ intent and their creative freedom while we keep our guests safe in a giant maze-like windowless building! 

a maximalist style room made entirely of trash with intricate designs on the floor, walls, and ceiling
Trash Temple room by Corinne Loperfino inside Meow Wolf Santa Fe. Photo by Kate Russell

What are some of the most exciting projects you're working on now/artists you're working with?

Damn, I can’t tell you much because they are all TOP SECRET. Meow Wolf is getting better at supporting our artists inallowing them to propose more ambitious projects. I can’t WAIT for you to experience what we have coming. You may see some artists we’ve worked with before getting bigger and weirder… you’ll have to wait and see. 

One artist I think I can slip is that we’re working with Edie Fake on a Rotations project (Rotations is when we add a new installation to our existing exhibits). Edie is an illustrator andpainter, and creates work that uses the structure of architecture as a metaphor to explore his experiences in a trans body. His work is super detailed and maze-like in the best way. I owned a comic book of his 10 years ago called Gaylord Phoenix and I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to meet Edie, so being able to host an installation of his work is just a dream. 

It’s also a dream to finally have a big beautiful Dan Lam room in our Grapevine exhibit. I brought Dan to Meow Wolf in 2019 just to visit and we’ve been in conversations for years. 

Virgil Ortiz is another artist who I had been in talks with for three years before we found the perfect installation fit and his Indigenous Futurist installation, Sirens: Secret Passkeys and Portals, in the House of Eternal Return is now one of my favorite spaces in the whole exhibit.

Who are some artists you'd love to work with? Dream big!

Nick Cave, David Altmejd, Do Ho Suh, Björk, Guadalupe Maravilla, Yayoi Kusama (of course), TeamLab, The Daniels (Directors of Everything Everywhere All at Once), Ebony Patterson, and Sarah Sze—if by some miracle you’re reading this, call me! 

What are some challenges you've faced in building this community?

One of the biggest challenges was installing two projects (Omega Mart and Convergence Station) during the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to be as safe as possible on site, we followed social distancing guidelines andmasking procedures, and everyone wore full safety equipment, which inhibited natural relationships that would have been built on-site between our collaborators. 

We tend to be extremely ambitious as a whole, which can present challenges to providing a high quality when we stretch ourselves too thin. We took on more than 100 local collaborating artists for the Denver exhibit with a small team of Meow Wolf folks to support over 80 unique projects. We also have plenty of Meow Wolf critics– there are some people in every city who don’t like what we’re doing. I’ve heard commentary that there is a danger in our maximal, immersive aesthetic becoming people’s perception of “art”,wrongly blurring the lines of art and entertainment. First of all, it’s a huge compliment actually to think that our influence could be that huge. Ultimately, I used to see these critics as challenging but I have changed my perspective: they are performing their role by interrogating what we are. We are, in fact, boundary-pushing artists. It’s ok if it makes people uncomfortable! I used to respond to challenges with more trepidation but now I see challenges as opportunities to act in line with my vision—I’m here because I’m good at solving problems. Challenges are expected. They are the reason I have a role that allows me to grow. 

a photo from the back of a room during a community meeting with lots of people looking at a person speaking in front of a brick wall
Han Santana-Sayles speaking at a community meeting about Meow Wolf Denver. Photo by Alex Guardia

What does the future look like?

I’d like for Meow Wolf to continue to work with the best artists around the country and the world! This year I’m focusing on both digital new media art, AR, and VR by dipping my toes more into the tech art space, along with exploring more eco-friendly, recycled/trash art practices—I’d like to incorporate more of both into our exhibits. I’m always a fan of futurisms: Indigenous Futurism and AfroFuturism; I’m in awe at the ability of artists to create work that has political commentary through a science fiction lens. It’s timeless. 

It's important to me that we continue to be thoughtful about our approach to outreach in new communities. Central to my mission has always been a question of how do we ethically expand? By that, I mean how do we respect the community that existed in each location before we got there and create a platform for those artists to tell their stories in tandem with ours. I want Meow Wolf to be seen as a company that is an expert in working with artists, that is bold in our curation, and for others to see us as a template for a compelling alternative model that disrupts the gallery-centric art world. 

Don't miss Han speaking at RECONVENE Sessions: How I Sell Out My Events, an online event on June 8 starting at 10am Mountain Time.