“This is Just the Beginning.” Digging into Meow Wolf Foundation's Inaugural Round of Grants

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Inside Philanthropy, December 20, 2023 written by Mike Scutari

Photo caption: Meow Wolf Foundation Grantee Su Teatro, Based in Denver. Photo Credit: Tanya Mote

Founded in 2008 by a small collective of Santa Fe artists, Meow Wolf isn’t your typical corporate grantmaking entity. In 2017, it became the first certified B corporation in the themed entertainment industry, with a dual mission of turning a profit and benefiting local communities. Then there’s the company’s unique brand of themed entertainment. Among its many installations over the past 15 years, it produced the Projected Desert in Seven Monolith Village on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where Thali, the daughter of the Zenion priestess, spent her final days at the Burial Chamber of the Righteous Grand Believer recording her esoteric knowledge. If that sentence left you feeling slightly bewildered, that’s the point. Meow Wolf creates large-scale, interactive, immersive, and disorienting arts experiences that “redefine the paradigm of art and storytelling” and encourage visitors to “explore new realms of reality.” Its Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Denver, and Grapevine, Texas locations hosted a total of 2.7 million visitors last year, and a fifth site is set to open in Houston in 2024.

This year, it launched the Meow Wolf Foundation, which “fulfills the vision of our Meow Wolf cofounders,” said foundation Executive Director Julie Heinrich via email. “We’ve always been a very community-minded organization, since the early days of art-making in warehouse spaces and dumpster diving for trash to create beautiful, expressive maximalist creations. We’ve always had a strong ethic of bringing people together in community and generosity.” In late November, the foundation announced its community grant program’s inaugural round of funding, totaling $600,000 to 63 grassroots arts organizations in the four regions where the company operates. My exchange with Heinrich suggested that while Meow Wolf may not be your run-of-the-mill corporate funder, its foundation’s priorities, which include using art to build community, improve health outcomes, and galvanize social change, seamlessly align with larger crosscurrents in the field — and it’s just getting warmed up.

Three core principles

This isn’t Meow Wolf's first foray into grantmaking. In 2016, it established the DIY Fund to assist grassroots U.S. arts organizations after the tragic fire at Oakland’s DIY arts and music space, Ghost Ship. Through the fund, Meow Wolf awarded more than $400,000 to nearly 250 DIY spaces from 2017 to 2019. In addition, its web page laying out its community outreach efforts as a B Corp states it invested more than $1.7 million in local nonprofit organizations since 2016. This figure does not include the November round of funding, which marks the first time Meow Wolf has awarded grants through the Meow Wolf Foundation. The foundation officially went live this year, but “one could say the seeds were planted in the very beginning, back in 2008,” said Heinrich, who is also chief impact officer at Meow Wolf, which is based in Santa Fe. Given its leaders’ early aspirations, they’ve spent the intervening years deepening relationships in the communities where Meow Wolf had a footprint and gleaning insights from staff with ties to the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.

After incorporating the foundation last year, leaders pivoted to identifying key priority areas for funding. “There is no shortage of causes to support,” Heinrich said, “and after many conversations with numerous stakeholders, it was clear that the Meow Wolf Foundation could have the most impact if we focused on the thing we knew best — art, imagination, creativity, and the belief that an investment in artists and the creative economy can truly transform communities.” Stakeholders landed on three core principles, which, as it turns out, mirror key trends across the broader arts funding ecosystem. The first, “Accessible: Art for All,” aims to facilitate a sense of belonging, opportunity, and agency through art and creativity, reflecting grantmakers’ unwavering commitment to boosting access, particularly for historically under-engaged demographics.

“Restorative: Art to Heal, Nourish, and Bridge Divides” channels the belief that the arts can heal and focuses on areas like behavioral health. This principle also focuses on preserving traditional cultural practices, especially those within Indigenous and First Nations communities. The third principle, “Transformative: Art to Build Community, Spark Action, and Imagine New Approaches,” will sound familiar as well, since it supports projects that drive civic engagement and social change. Recipients included Cara Mia Theatre (Dallas), Creative Santa Fe, Las Vegas Indian Center, Spark! Dallas, Zuni Youth Enrichment (Zuni, New Mexico), and Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center (Denver).

Reimagining grantmaking

Meow Wolf’s community grant program is currently invitation-only. Staff came up with candidates after conducting site visits, reflecting on existing relationships, and soliciting recommendations from colleagues and peers within the philanthropic sector. Applicants had to meet at least one of the following requirements — have a minimum of three years of consistent public arts programming, an annual budget of $50,000 or more, and paid staffing equivalent to one-half of a full-time employee or greater.

From the outset, Heinrich had to acknowledge that “there are never enough dollars to go around and it is easy to compare ourselves to much larger foundations that have millions more to give.” She and her team sought to “reframe that reality” in a handful of ways. First, stakeholders prioritized the collective power of the Meow Wolf community, including its workforce and fanbase. Leaders also recognized that “many of the challenges we are seeking to address are symptoms of much larger issues — which often includes some of the historical, harmful, and outdated practices within grantmaking institutions,” Heinrich said. “How do we push the boundaries of what has been done in philanthropy and reimagine a different way? What hasn’t been done? And why not?”

Here, Heinrich alludes to how some arts funding leaders engaged in deep introspection after the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. This soul-searching led them to reverse historically tepid support for organizations serving communities of color, cultivate a more diverse pool of decision-makers, and give community leaders a bigger voice by rolling out participatory grantmaking programs.

As for Meow Wolf leaders, they recognized what Heinrich called “the tremendous opportunity for companies to restate their commitment to corporate responsibility.” In addition to grantmaking, other initiatives demonstrating its commitment to improving its business practices as a B corp include setting a company-wide minimum individual living wage of $17/hour, giving away more than 10,000 free passes to its House of Eternal Return installation in Santa Fe since 2016, and reducing its water usage by 20% through conservation efforts.

“As a certified B corp, Meow Wolf is already poised to make lasting change and the Meow Wolf Foundation is part of that bigger vision to benefit all people, communities, and the planet,” Heinrich said.

“Admiration and respect for the work”

With its first round of grantmaking in the books, Heinrich reflected on the challenges facing smaller arts organizations in a post-pandemic environment. “The most pressing need for artists and arts organizations continues to be the lack of funding and access,” she said, noting that “many nonprofits are navigating drops in total giving and are still adjusting from both the challenges and opportunities that emerged from the peak of COVID.”

At the same time, the funding situation on the ground hasn’t fundamentally changed since larger and more established organizations continue to consume a disproportionately larger slice of the philanthropic pie. “Even in a state like New Mexico,” Heinrich said, “where arts and culture funding is relatively high compared to the rest of the nation, if you examine the findings more closely you will notice that large institutions continually receive both foundation grants and donations from individual donors.”

Emerging artists, meanwhile, continue to struggle to secure funding, find affordable spaces, and access professional development opportunities. “There are even more limited opportunities for BIPOC artists and organizations led by people of color,” Heinrich said. “So while both Meow Wolf and the Meow Wolf Foundation proudly support the full spectrum of the arts and culture ecosystem and the creative economy, we are particularly concerned about making sure that grassroots organizations and emerging artists have the tools and resources to succeed.”

Looking ahead, Heinrich and her team will be working with recipient organizations to optimize the grant application process for the next round of funding, which will also be invitation only. The foundation will post more information on its website by the summer. Leaders are also considering whether to roll out what Heinrich called “a couple of additional programs centered on more participatory practices and involvement — potentially even establishing a way for artists to be awarded funds directly.”

In my inquiry, I asked Heinrich if anything about the foundation’s inaugural round of grantmaking surprised her. “No surprises, but rather deepened admiration and respect for the work of our nonprofit grantees,” was her response. “We are honored to have an opportunity to support their missions and wholeheartedly believe that this is just the beginning of long and fruitful relationships.”