If you’re driving down a road outside of Santa Fe, don’t resist Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
The immersive art venue housed in a former bowling alley is a cornucopia of disarmingly innocent appliances that lead to an otherworldly land of phosphorescent trees, musical dinosaur skeletons, and mysterious ruptures in space and time.
The House of Eternal Return welcomed its millionth visitor this summer. New venues are opening in Las Vegas and Denver. And, following the devastating fire at the DIY space Ghost Ship in 2016, Meow Wolf launched The DIY Fund to share resources with fellow DIY venues.
We asked Meow Wolf’s CEO and 99U speaker, Vince Kadlbuk how an art space can mean big business, navigating creativity and capitalism, and how to go from scrappy to scale.
You’ve been working on Meow Wolf for a long time. When did you first think there is a business here?
About three years after we started, we did an immersive exhibition in a space called The Center for Contemporary Art. We put up this giant ship that had crash-landed in a fictitious sci-fi world. And there was a moment when a mother came up to us and said, “Thank you for creating this project. It’s the only thing that’s pulled my son away from video games all summer long.” And we had the realization “What we created was more entertaining and significant to this kid than video games, which means that there’s a business there.” That’s when the gears started turning: How do we do this full time?
Has there been a time when you’ve struggled with whether to make a decision as a business lead versus as a creative?
I can justify creative value as our business value. Meow Wolf is a maximal creative company. We go above and beyond what is normally considered to be the minimum viable product. So, I’m not beholden to cutting corners or maximizing profit margins. We’ve proven that above and beyond creative work has value in it. A project like Denver, for example, is incredibly high tech and we’re working with hundreds of artists. It’s a really expensive project and we’re going to keep the tickets prices reasonably affordable. That might seem like it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective, but it’s my job to justify why such a massive creative project gives more value than what we can see in the ticket.
Does that mean you have a lot of difficult investor conversations?
There are difficult investor conversations with people who are interested but not totally sold yet. My job as the CEO is to make sure that the money we bring in is aligned with our character. We’re lucky to have a team who are investing for the right reasons: because of who we are, not because of what they want us to be. Our investors have been our biggest cheerleaders.
You have a DIY Fund that gives resources to other DIY venues. Why does that fund exist?
We were on the outside, looking in at the creative economy for so long and we remember it. It’s still a fresh taste in my mouth. The only way we’ll become a successful company is if we’re impacting the creative economy at large. We want to makes sure that, if we’re going to grow, it’s a rising tide that lifts as many boats as possible. We want to grow the pie as big as we can so that other people can be a part of it. Right now, we create immersive experiences, entertainment, and merchandise, but the biggest goal is to influence the creation of a global creative economy platform that opens up the possibility for artists to be paid in a radically different way.
What’s your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is raising money. That sounds so superficial, but you really have to believe in a vision and convince people whose job is to be skeptical that it could be a good investment. Once money is raised, a lot of the other difficulties fall in place. It’s difficult to get artists to collaborate and work together and believe in a big project like the one we’re doing in Denver, for example. But when you have money to pay people, they don’t have to have a giant belief in the whole project. I have a lot of issues with capitalism, but it’s been an incredible vehicle for productivity and the ability to build remarkable things.
Does that mean that creatives should embrace capitalism?
A year and a half, before we were opening our doors and bringing in hundreds of thousand dollars a week, we were delivering food at ten dollars an hour. There are creatives out there who, with just the smallest amount of support, can create incredible economic successes. They need to think: How do I, as a creative, participate in a capitalist structure? End this narrative that there’s such a thing as selling out. That’s what keeps creatives broke and powerless. That none of us are participating is what allows capitalism to be so shitty. If we were, we could all make impact on how capitalism evolves. There’s a bridge that needs to be built between the creative world and the business world: it’s a two-way bridge. Both people need to build it. That’s the biggest thing that I’m hoping comes from Meow Wolf’s success: that that bridge is built.
When you say ‘global creativity economy platform’, what does that mean?
Look around—every square inch, every cubic foot of the world is an opportunity for creativity. And every person is a potential consumer, buyer, or supporter of that creativity. Right now, the venue for creativity is limited to brick and mortar buildings; performers have to have a place to perform; artists need to have galleries to show. We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that is allowing for new infrastructure not just based on just physical buildings. Uber does digital infrastructure creating opportunities for any driver to become a taxi driver. Airbnb created a digital infrastructure for any house to become a hotel room. This is the same type of thing: How do we create as many venues and opportunities as possible for people to compensate artists for their work. It’ll takes a lot of collaboration: a lot of creative companies coming together. It can’t be done by just one.