How art collective Meow Wolf convinced George RR Martin to invest $3 million and create a real-life fantasy/sci-fi world — and how it’s paid off.
Imagine walking up to a beautiful, eccentrically styled home. You’re not sure what to expect, but you’ve heard odd things are going on at this house — and it’s up to you to investigate.
To your right is a brown wooden staircase with numerous family portraits carefully lining its ascent to the second floor. Looking at the portraits of the Seligs — the family that allegedly resides in this home — you see parents, a boy, a girl and some curious-looking relatives. At first glance, they seem like a pretty regular American family.
But there’s something odd, and you know it. A strange booming sound is coming from unseen interior areas of this house. In fact, multiple odd noises are coming from different parts of the house, and it’s clear the family is not there. A deeper look reveals odd flashing from the stove in their seemingly normal kitchen. A painting in the dining room seems to be alive with an odd video message. And their fridge opens to a bright, shining expanse — beckoning you to step into something altogether abnormal.
You wonder, What on Earth is going on? Or am I even on Earth anymore?
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return
Thus begins the interactive, immersive story that is House of Eternal Return, a permanent art installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that was created by a previously little-known local art collective that goes by the name of Meow Wolf. They talked George RR Martin into investing three million dollars into their vision — convincing the famous science fiction and fantasy writer to buy an old bowling alley so they could turn it into their headquarters and house their first permanent art installation. Martin said yes, they raised a couple more million themselves, and the rest is history.
Since opening their doors in March 2016, Meow Wolf’s complex has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors journey into the 3D, live-action, exploratory mystery / science fiction / fantasy story that is House of Eternal Return. In the first year alone over 400,000 visitors explored the space — which was more than quadruple the traffic they were anticipating. It’s become the most Instagrammed place in all of New Mexico, and word is rapidly spreading all over the country. The complex made record sales during the summer of 2017, and the art collective is already planning to expand into more cities.
Why the explosive success? If it sounds like a true fairy tale, then you wouldn’t be completely wrong. The story of Meow Wolf takes place in the state whose slogan is The Land of Enchantment, after all.
“Meow Wolf were people that should’ve gone to LA,” describes John Feins, the official marketing director of Meow Wolf. “They were 21st-century, Nickelodeon-generation, immersively interactive, technologically sophisticated, maximalist, wild-eyed, ambitious artists. And just about anybody like that would’ve gone to LA.”
But these initial artists didn’t go to LA. Founded in 2008 by 12 artists (including Vince Kadlubek, who is now Meow Wolf’s CEO) with a name that literally came from pulling slips of paper out of a hat, the scrappy art collective decided to make roots in their hometown. While Meow Wolf didn’t really fit into the curated arts scene of downtown Santa Fe — a city with a population of only about 80,000 that boasts over 250 art galleries — they knew they had something to give to the city.
“They knew they were Santa Fe artists,” says Feins. “They were absolutely indicative of the kinds of people who come here or are from here and who are independent, rebellious, anarchistic, folklore-oriented, different. They knew they were all those things. And yet they didn’t have an outlet here.”
So they stayed. To many, it would’ve seemed a risky if not altogether foolish decision. But slowly, Meow Wolf began adding to the story that is the artistic heart of Santa Fe, carving a reputation for themselves by offering truly unique creative experiences in the form of theater productions and impermanent art installations.
Meow Wolf: Ragtag Artists to Popular Sensation
Olive Polzin, one of the lead artists at the current Meow Wolf complex and a key artist heavily involved in the creation of House of Eternal Return, joined the collective in 2010 after a move to Santa Fe from Arizona. Polzin was looking to jump into the relevant arts scene. He unexpectedly landed on the latest thing Meow Wolf was doing — a three-hour play called The Moon Is to Live On, complete with video, time-based art, and live music and dance — and was immediately impressed by the caliber of people involved.
“It was mind-blowing,” he says. “Here was a handful of people — probably 25 to 40 people — putting on this production entirely with no pay.” Polzin, who graduated from Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, helped paint a wall for the production that first night, and he was hooked.
Polzin was also involved with The Due Return, which consisted of a large interdimensional ship that had landed on an alien landscape that was up for about six weeks in 2011 at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. To everyone’s surprise, The Due Return was a huge success and very well received by the community.
And that was the turning point. Meow Wolf knew a permanent art installation was the next step for their collective — something bigger, bolder and more creative than ever before. However, the collective was traveling to a lot of out-of-state shows, and the idea remained just an idea for a few years.
“We all had this sense that we needed to do another big project in Santa Fe,” says Polzin. “So this idea of coming back around to a major Santa Fe project and making a permanent installation — which we’d never done before — was a big goal.”
It took deep tragedy to compel the collective toward their goal, Polzin explains. A beloved member of the collective suddenly died, leaving the other members reeling and much more aware of the fragility of life. “If we’re gonna pursue something crazy, we’re gonna have to go for it, because life is short,” describes Polzin of the feeling of that period for the collective.
That’s when Vince Kadlubek — one of the founders of Meow Wolf and its current CEO — decided to approach George RR Martin, because he had done some work for Martin in the past. Martin, who has lived in Santa Fe since 1979, was enjoying the success of Game of Thrones and had been investing in the local arts community with his newly acquired wealth. It seemed a perfect opportunity, and Meow Wolf truly felt Martin would resonate with their style and vision.
“It took some convincing, but he was into it,” laughs Polzin — who was not directly involved in the pitch to George RR Martin. “We were still a group of ragtag artists.”
But Martin must’ve seen something in those ragtag artists, because he said yes. And the rest of the story, as seen in the wild success of House of Eternal Return, has been enchanted ever since.
Creating House of Eternal Return
But before the magical success, it took immense work for everyone involved in Meow Wolf. From the time George RR Martin agreed to buy the bowling alley and invest three million dollars into Meow Wolf to the opening of their complex, only 16 months or so passed.
“It wasn’t so much of a challenge working together because of our history and culture,” says Polzin. “But it was a huge challenge to step up to this scale and this size of a project.”
The team had to figure out how to make something that would last through years of continual traffic of hundreds of visitors each day, which added a much larger architectural and organizational challenge than the collective had ever experienced before. While Meow Wolf had been refining their creative process with each project, they had to think through much of it in greater detail to pull off such a big idea in a 20,000-square-foot space. They would begin to refer to “anchor spaces” as the biggest spaces from which the smaller spaces — individual rooms and custom spaces — emerged.
In general, the collective follows a rule from improv called “Yes, and…” In improv, a scene must continue in the direction the actors go, and they can’t say no to an idea. They must simply add to it. As described by Polzin, this means when someone has a creative idea, people can’t just negate it. They build upon it and add to it.
“If someone says, ‘We’re astronauts,’ you don’t say, ‘No, I want us to be cowboys!’” says Polzin. “You say, ‘Yes, and they’re holding lassos.’”
The story for the installation itself was created through a meandering, collaborative sort of process. While the space was developing, the team would then work more on the story, and each propelled the other. Eventually a narrative team was organized, and the story of the Selig family and their mysterious disappearance took shape. Over 200 hours of content was created for visitors to explore — diaries, computer files, letters, articles, videos, newspapers, etc. — to help people unravel the tale of the missing Seligs.
The team — which grew exponentially to over 150 artists and volunteers as the project took off — worked 12-hour days for months on end to complete the project in a timely fashion. But Meow Wolf never lost its communal, collective attitude. They are a group who support and listen to each other, propelling innovation no matter whose idea it is or where it comes from. Meow Wolf is also passionate about rewarding and paying their artists substantially, and they offer generous compensation to their other employees and to the community at large.
“One of the big goals was to employ all of the artists that worked on this space,” says Tara Schurdell, one of the managers of the complex. “We exceeded our expectations when we first opened, and the trickle-down theory — we’re proof of that. It’s working, and it’s definitely reflected in our paychecks.”
Schurdell moved out to New Mexico in 2012 with her husband Todd — who is a neon artist and became involved with Meow Wolf in 2015 to help with the neon art found throughout the permanent installation. She was asked to come on board as a manager once House of Eternal Return opened, and she has enjoyed being part of the collective from a management perspective ever since. Often she gets to watch adults and children directly interact with the space, and the joy and empowerment it brings to others leaves her in awe.
“When we first opened, a little boy [walked in]…and he said, “How’d they know it was in my dreams?” she recalls. “He was blown away! He was like, ‘How’d they know?’ He was jumping up and down. That alone right there — that’s why we’re doing it.”
It’s impossible to enter House of Eternal Return at any age and not feel the absolute wonder and imagination of the place. Entering the mystery of the story, along with exploring the hidden portals to magical lands, offers everyone a chance to remember what it’s like to dream, to explore, to transcend the ordinary. Anything is possible in the worlds that make up House of Eternal Return, and surprises beckon visitors from around each corner. Wide grins and exclamations of wonder spontaneously break out from everyone, and even adults have been known to yell out in delight, “Look at this! Look!” like the vanished five-year-old child they once were.
Because sometimes — as Meow Wolf’s story shows us — enchantment is real, and dreams can truly turn into reality. House of Eternal Return is a beacon to any weary person who needs to find their original creative, childlike spark once more.