Meow Wolf, the art collective that transformed into a multimillion-dollar, award-winning Arts Production Company, is under new leadership.
As Vince Kadlubek steps back as CEO, the role has been taken on by three people already involved in the leadership structure: Ali Rubinstein (Chief Creative Officer), Carl Christensen (Chief Financial Officer) and Jim Ward (Chief of Content).
The Co-CEOs will collaborate with each other and with the other co-founders, department and project heads.
Ali Rubinstein, a creative and pioneer in the immersive industry, spent over 22 years as a Disney Imagineer. She left her position as Executive Producer for Disney’s Asia region to bring her expertise in immersive experience to Meow Wolf as the company’s Chief Creative Officer in May 2019.
As Co-CEO, she will continue to apply that creativity while serving a broader role in Meow Wolf’s overall strategy and continued growth. She will also be empowering local artists through the company’s work and community engagement.
Rubinstein begins by outlining her career, and the route that brought her to Meow Wolf:
“In a nutshell, my career started in film and theatre; I was a scenic design major, creating theatrical sets and immersive surroundings. Film and theatre was my background.”
“Disney, the best of the best, is where I fell for immersive experiences. I started with Disney 23 years ago. As a production designer, I was really blessed with the fact that I got to work on Tokyo Disney, arguably one of the most beautiful parks in the world. I then worked on the Hong Kong Disneyland expansion, then helped build the Shanghai Park castle and other attractions in Shanghai.
“When I left the company I was the executive producer for the China Asia Parks for Hong Kong and Shanghai.”
Arriving at Meow Wolf
Much of what Rubinstein did at Disney was relevant to the Meow Wolf world of immersive entertainment.
“I was able to experience aspects of production design, creative direction, show production, as well as working with ride designers, engineers, animatronics and everybody across the board. I was really lucky that I was able to work with so many different amazing artists and disciplines at Disney. So, I got a pretty broad base.”
“What brought me to Meow Wolf was an email from one of the founders, at the time, asking if I’d be interested. I thought, ‘Well, what the heck, go check it out.’
“When I did, I was just inspired and blown away by what I saw. I couldn’t believe that a company as small as it was, working on what seemed to be a small scale, was exploding with so much creativity. It was mind-blowing, mind-expanding creativity, and it was so exciting. I thought, ‘Well this is something I haven’t tried before.’
“So I came to Meow Wolf, initially as the Chief Creative Officer, before taking over the Exhibitions Division entirely, and now also becoming co-CEO, once again having an amazing opportunity to experience aspects of the business that are not in my wheelhouse. So it’s been quite a learning experience.
“I never planned to be a CEO of our company. And yet, here I am.”
Creativity and business acumen
Meow Wolf is striking both for its fusion of creative innovation and exploration with business acumen, and its capacity to appeal to all audiences on a multitude of levels.
“It really gets so many things right,” says Rubinstein. “If we talk about the original Santa Fe exhibition, The House of Eternal Return, the exhibition is all original, exciting and amazing IP, creativity, artwork that’s never been seen before. But it’s also woven with a narrative that is bizarre, interesting, complex and approachable at the same time.”
“It’s a narrative that you can get a feel for if you want to just experience the art of the exhibition. Or, you can dive into a very deep and extraordinary storyline that has many storytelling goals, and you can participate in that story, or sit back and let it wash over you.
“One big part of it is the attraction of the narrative, and the other is exploring the idea of transformation.”
“Inspiring creativity is what we do, and the way we do it is accessible and exciting and fun. I think that’s a pretty good recipe.”
Getting interactive at Meow Wolf
The interactive, interpretive element of Meow Wolf’s creation flips the model from art served by artists, to something people are invited to join.
Technology adds yet another dimension. Rubinstein adds:
“I think our opportunity to interconnect our immersive experiences through an advanced mixed reality platform will result in a radically new form of convergent and personalised storytelling. It allows us the opportunity to create socially conscious and creative content, but also to allow our visitors to be part of the co-creation of that conscious and creative content.”
“Digitally actuated experiences that grant participants the tools to create and publicise their own activations are part of what we want to champion,” she explains. “I think that will definitely put us in the lead in this experience marketplace that people are talking about. It’s a form of creative activism; a sharing of ideas.
“With the base and background of our exhibitions, adding this layer that enables the interconnection of the exhibitions, immersive experiences and events are going to be really exciting for the company in the future.”
For the future, Rubinstein says:
“We’re looking at a very aggressive expansion of our portfolio of exhibitions, nationally and internationally. All our exhibitions are going to be born in collaboration with local communities as a social impact art project. That’s an important one for us.”
“Expanding our portfolio of exhibitions is going to be critical. Live events, of course, are at the heart of who we are as a company, and at the heart of our exhibitions as well, so there will be an aggressive expansion of our live events once they are able to come back.
“We are lucky. It’s extraordinary, to me, that we are opening a new brand new exhibition in Vegas, in the middle of a pandemic.”
Meow Wolf, COVID-19 and artainment
COVID-19 has been a challenge for the whole sector of art and ‘artainment’ – a word at which Rubinstein recoils:
“Urgh, that word. You said The Word…
“COVID has affected all of us; all the businesses in themed entertainment, art exhibitions, immersive experiences, all of the things that make up – that word.
“With Meow Wolf, we have been very strategic over the nine or ten months that we have been truly impacted by this, and focused on maintaining the schedule for opening our exhibitions.”
“We’re lucky in that Las Vegas has somewhat more relaxed ground rules than some other states; we are able to open – at a reduced capacity, of course, with all of the safety and health modifications in place. We’re very lucky that is where our first exhibition is scheduled to open, and we’re appreciative of the state of Nevada that we still have the opportunity to actually open.
“And then, for the amazing exhibition that’s opening later this year in Denver, we also got a little bit lucky in that we should be fairly well vaccinated, by that time. We’ll be able to open hopefully to full capacity, but certainly to some amount of capacity, with whatever safety measures we still have in place at that point.”
Can immersive, creative experiences be part of a strategy to revitalise the retail environment?
“That’s something there has been a lot of talk about recently,” says Rubinstein. “I think that that’s something that Meow Wolf is uniquely placed to do, and we should all be thinking about that; all the companies, all the people that are creating these kinds of experiences that are grounded in creativity and art, and in integrating the communities which we enter and on which we impact.”
“I think all of us have an obligation to be looking at what’s happened in the world of retail; what’s happened to our commerce across the globe, and what we do with spaces that are now left empty. We need to look at what we do to help businesses that now are maybe not thriving. Can we come in and help create artistic, creative, imaginative experiences in locations that were not that before?
“We can either help the businesses to become that or if there are empty businesses; if there are malls that are empty, if there are businesses, towns that are empty, I think that we have a huge opportunity, as an industry, not just Meow Wolf, to provide more spaces for marginalised artists. To give them visibility, to figure out a way to utilise the spaces that are being made available, tragically, because of this, to turn this into something positive for the creative community.
“That’s an industry-wide thing we should be talking about.”
Global expansion for Meow Wolf
Meow Wolf is currently in discussion with developers in Asia and in Europe about opportunities for exhibitions:
“I can’t get into specific timelines, of course, because everything’s so up in the air,” says Rubinstein. “We just don’t know when countries are going to open. But it’s absolutely in our sights to go global in the very near future.”
Chief Financial Officer and now Co-CEO at Meow Wolf, Carl Christensen has been involved with the company’s capital development for three years.
Explaining his involvement, he says:
“Three years ago, I really wasn’t looking for the next step. My work has been management consulting, investment banking, financial and corporate finance.
“I had done some work with creative experiential companies. When Meow Wolf reached out to me, I was very close to just passing, because of the unique and funny name. I thought maybe this was a bit of a joke.
“But I looked it up, and what intrigued me was the organic reviews of the experience that people were sharing online. I thought, ‘Well, I need to meet with this group and find out what they are doing, at least.’
“When I met with them, I got a sense of what they were looking to accomplish long term. I felt a connection and I felt it would be an amazing experience.”
A clear vision
Meow Wolf combines an innovative creative aesthetic with business drive and a clear vision of where it wants to go. This is one of the things that sets it apart.
“It’s a really interesting dynamic that we are working on nearly every single day,” says Christensen. “Finding that balance between what we internally called chaos and order.”
“The administrative and financial side of the company needs structure. We need to pass audits to be able to raise capital, we need to be able to hit deadlines and we need to have budgets. This is order. These are the areas where, without any kind of barriers or guidelines, we know the train falls off the rails pretty quickly.
“Chaos, by contrast, is this amazing and beautiful creative expression in process. It needs freedom; it needs space.
“We need to find that balance between order and chaos. It has been a ride over the last three years figuring out that balance, trying to keep that wild space for creatives but also to provide the structure, confidence and process that an investor wants.”
Meow Wolf finds its balance
It’s a significant achievement to have struck such a balance between two elements that don’t seem, from the outside at least, to be easily reconcilable.
“Well, it’s not without any kind of errors or mistakes,” he says. “We’re growing constantly, and we find often that it’s a pendulum that swings this way and that way. We like to think that we are getting closer and closer to that balance.”
“But also, depending on the process or project, sometimes that balance needs to be a little bit different. So it’s maintaining flexibility and being able to adapt with an open mind. We need to have that on all sides. Those on the administrative side who are used to structure need to be open to flexibility. Also, those that are creative and may not have felt boundaries before, need to be open to process and structure.
“It’s beautiful thing, when it when it’s done right.”
He comments on Meow Wolf’s new leadership structure, and its dynamic.
“It’s very different. We have an office of the three of us who make up the CEO role. Each of us comes with a very different perspective on how you approach the creative process and business in and of itself. That said, some of that openness, balancing and space that we provide each other has been a great thing.”
“The three of us – Ali, Jim and I – have found a balance where we support each other. We each drive with the experience and expertise, but still question and find ways to help polish the stone.
“Our company is adapting to that. It’s not traditional, but I think we’ve been able to gel together and provide clear leadership. It’s potentially a short-term thing; it might be a long-term thing.
“It goes back to my previous point about flexibility and openness to new approaches. That has been important for us to have with our employees, and our employees to have with us, as a leadership, especially as we’ve taken on 2020 with the roller coaster ride that it provided all of us.”
Future developments at Meow Wolf
In terms of future developments, Christensen reiterates Rubinstein’s point:
“Meow Wolf has so much ahead of it. We plan for a future where immersive experiences, along with live events and digital experiences are interconnected, providing mixed reality that will deliver a radically new form of experiential storytelling.”
Touching on the broad scope of Meow Wolf’s appeal, he adds:
“It really is remarkable. We have partnerships with sports teams, and that has been a wonderful thing – to be able to sponsor and be part of a new sports team in the state of New Mexico. It’s the right partnership. Firstly, they appreciate who and what we are. But it is also an example of that appeal that grows and develops.
“Meow Wolf brings people together, regardless of their age, gender, political interests, perspectives, or hobbies. It removes them from those defining parameters, and encourages them to explore new and unknown possibilities.”
People want different experiences
After the pandemic, he envisages a resurgence of interest:
“I feel very confident that people will still very much want experiences like this. They don’t just want an Instagram wall that they can stand behind. Instead, they want to take an active role in exploring these new and exciting worlds. They want to be surprised by the unexpected, they want to push boundaries, and they want to do this with each other in the physical world.
“I think we will see an explosion of demand, once people become comfortable returning back to an environment like this.”
The company has introduced safety protocols:
“We are implementing our HVAC system, and in some cases, our spacing is a little bit different. We have thought of a variety of different ways we route people through an experience. These are all temporary. They allow a bridge to the point when people are again comfortable with going back to a relatively normal situation.
“We believe, and so do our investors, in a world where Meow Wolf can thrive because there is rich demand for exploring touchable, immersive experiences.”
A Venture Partner at Alsop Louie Partners, Jim Ward has worked with companies such as Gowalla, Framehawk, Next Big Sound, Ruckus, Zephyr, Niantic Labs, Mixed Dimensions, and – of course – Meow Wolf.
Previously, he was President of LucasArts and Sr. Vice President of Lucasfilm, Ltd. Mapping the path that brought him to his leadership role with Meow Wolf, he says:
“I started off originally in the advertising business in Madison Ave, New York City. First I ran global advertising accounts for agencies. Then I ran the global Apple business and introduced the original Powerbook. I ran the global Microsoft business, and introduced Windows 95 with The Rolling Stones and Start me Up. I ran global NIKE business, and introduced Tiger Woods to the world.”
Ward then went client-side and joined Lucasfilm. He spent over a decade there, at a time when George Lucas was investing his own money in rebooting the Star Wars franchise and building his own infrastructure:
“I came on board and created a marketing division, a distribution division, an online division. I went on to run the video game company, and become president, managing all of our revenue streams on a global basis.”
Leaving Lucasfilm in 2008, he became involved in venture capital with Alsop Louie Partners. He says:
“Along the way, I have had a lot of fun. I went momentarily insane and ran for the US Congress in the 2010 cycle. I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and also volunteered to help out the Phoenix Symphony.”
He became CEO and, under his leadership, the Symphony underwent a comprehensive transformation, establishing its financial stability of the Association:
“I turned that organisation around over the course of eight years, keeping music alive in Phoenix. All the while I was doing that, I continued to work with Alsop Louie.”
Meeting Meow Wolf
At this point, Ward encountered Meow Wolf:
“Stewart Alsop of Alsop Louie has a home in Santa Fe. He had invested in this crazy small company called Meow Wolf,” he says.
At a partners’ meeting, because of his familiarity with the experience sector, Stewart Alsop suggested that Ward check that his investment in Meow Wolf was a good one.
“I flew out for an Investor weekend in 2017 and had my mind bent. I became very excited about the opportunity. So, I came back and said to Stewart, ‘Not only were you smart to invest personally, but I think this is something the firm should invest in.’
“We ended up leading an investment round a number of rounds ago and got involved in that way. I got involved on the Board first. Then I began to advise Vince [Kadlubek], the CEO.
“As often happens in the VC world, you drop into a company to help it scale. I dropped in as Chief Content Officer. Then, when Vince stepped aside, we formed our interesting management structure of the Office of the CEO.
“In a nutshell, that’s my journey.”
There were qualities to Meow Wolf that made Ward realise its potential and worth from the start.
“I couldn’t articulate this at the time,” he explains. “But I have done so since. Meow Wolf is a social impact art project that is fuelled by a business.
“First and foremost, it’s very rare in the entertainment space to find a vortex of pure creativity like I found in Santa Fe; the sheer talent that is manifested by the House of Eternal Return.”
“Beyond that, the people that I met were just amazing and the fact that this was a radically inclusive, socially conscious art project that put art first, I knew intuitively that a business could result from that.
“From a business perspective, I have been looking at deal flow for a decade in the entertainment space, based on a thesis and a white paper developed by Pine and Gilmore in the late 90s, covering the evolution of economies from the agrarian state to the industrialises state, to the commoditisation of products, to service economies, then experience economies.
“The next step was transformation economies. A business that can become transformational represents, from my perspective, a great opportunity. What I saw in Meow Wolf was the first true example of an experience economy on the cusp of a transformation one.”
All images kind courtesy of Meow Wolf