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Dissecting the question: is Meow Wolf art?

The fact that this question keeps being asked is telling, says Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek

Claudia Bueno featured at Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart in Las Vegas

by Vince Kadlubek, founder and director, Meow Wolf

Vince Kadlubek, CEO of Meow Wolf at the House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe

This whole dialogue around “Is Meow Wolf actually Art?” is kind of hilarious, quite telling, and incredibly intriguing. In this post, I’ll try my best to capture all the layers, from my personal perspective.

This is exactly the kind of conundrum-questioning that we set out to instigate when we started Meow Wolf in 2008. The fact that this question is being asked on a global level, and sparks such passionate discussion in The Art World, is a signal that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.

When we started Meow Wolf, we had experienced first-hand the dogmatic and elitist definitions of “Art” that were creating condescending gatekeeping for most creatives we knew. Galleries who knew “Art” were showcasing work that pushed minimal boundaries and created buzz exclusively within an insular echo chamber of others who were “in the know” about Art.

That insular echo chamber, mind you, was not just some closed-loop of notoriety and social status, it was literally a system that was built by and for the 1%. It alienated the vast majority of artists in the world (including us) and the vast majority of people who may have an interest in the arts.

The elitism of the Art World

The Art World’s definition of “Art” had so severely outcasted most people that the Art World had become more of a butt of a joke (see: Duct Taped Banana) than anything else. The intellectualized definition of Art had created a massive distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, with 99% of folks falling on the side of “have-nots”, relegated to “lower-class” artistic expressions such as movies, television, video games, theme parks, and Tumblr.

Meow Wolf Omega Mart C Bueno
Claudia Bueno featured at Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV

Such a limited definition of “Art” by the establishment removed all the fun from artistic expression. It removed all the passion and innocence of making stuff, and what was left was an exclusive club of pretension and a bunch of emerging artists playing some weird game of status-gaining in hopes of being accepted by the elite.

This version of “Art” was frustrating, joyless, grotesque, and so obviously created for generating closed-circuit levels of power, status, and value. By creating such an insular definition of “Art”, the culture could weed out folks who did not meet their value standards and then collectively define where the value resided, creating a system where collectors anointed value for the sake of rigged investments, self-defined tax-write offs, and the jollies of being part of a secret society.

Controlling the definition

Think about it… if you can control the definition of “What is Art?”, and you can thus control the definitions of the value, then you have an “insider-trading” sort of influence over the severely unregulated market.

This is important when you are a collector who donates absurd value of work to a non-profit in exchange for a reduction in owed taxes or has cash investments sitting in the asset of Art. Plus, of course, there is the added bonus of clinking wine glasses with a select group of your peers. It’s a hyper-class networking system that allows folks to die with a feeling of “I was one of the special ones.”

Nico Salazar’s Future Fantasy Delight room at MW Santa Fe
Nico Salazar’s Future Fantasy Delight room at Meow Wolf Santa Fe

What this definition of Art was doing to the overall exploration of imagination was terribly compromising. Most artists could see through the BS and wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, they were relying on small handouts or Kickstarters or minimal public grants to do their work. And even for the artists that attempted to play the game, the vast majority were seen as “not valuable enough” and unable to be accepted into the clique.

Putting people off

Even more significantly, this established definition of Art had alienated the masses to the point where Art became synonymous with snooty, snobby, snaky, and classist. The term “artsy-fartsy” emerged. Even the idea of a child picking up a pencil to draw would strike many parents as “going down the wrong path.”

For generations, creative expression was seen as a turn towards the dark side. One where you either end up broke and struggling or elitist and soulless. Millions and millions of potential explorers of the imagination were shamed into standard career paths. All because of the stigma that “Art” had created.

Forest, Meow Wolf Santa Fe
The Forest, Meow Wolf Santa Fe

Most traditional museums were not meant for the masses. They were boring, intellectual and stodgy displays meant for boring, intellectual and stodgy people. And most galleries were definitely not meant for the masses. They were sales portals for the folks who could afford $20,000 paintings.

Meow Wolf provokes dilemmas

In 2008, when we formed, this was my personal instigation interest. Everyone involved at the beginning of Meow Wolf had their own interests, and I wanted to provoke these sorts of dilemmas in the Art World. And the best way to do so was to build from a place of joy and innocence. To create with a sense of childlike wonder. We wanted to make Art that didn’t need to stimulate intellectually but instead replenish the heart through play, joke, exploration.

Then, invite the masses. Get kids in there. Get families inside of these exhibits. Allow people in, without the pressure of having to buy anything or having to wonder: “Am I wanted here?” Just play, all are welcome, our creative worlds can be experienced by whomever. And then once the general population experienced the work, we called it Art. Because it was.

Invite the masses. Get kids in there. Get families inside of these exhibits. Allow people in, without the pressure of having to buy anything or having to wonder: “Am I wanted here?”

There was a sense that this provocation would end up agitating the Art World’s insecurities. It was always likely that their best response would be to begin dismissing the work as “entertainment”. We knew this would be the tactic. Because that’s the easiest way to maintain and defend the stranglehold on the definition — protect what is Art by dismissing everything else. Elitism.

Why question if Meow Wolf is art?

But then House of Eternal Return opened and the provocation reached new heights. The general population, the 99% of folks that the Art World had alienated, were now coming in droves.

Yes, we presented as Art and they experienced it as Art, and they loved it. And, of course, it was Art: Sculpture, painting, sound, abstraction, narrative, meaning, and intrigue covered every inch. How could it not be Art if the entirety of the experience was fully comprised of Art?

House of Eternal Return Meow Wolf
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return

Thus, the conundrum grew. The question “Is Meow Wolf actually Art?” began to show its true colours. And now the masses could see it in real-time. The assumption that The Art World was overwhelmingly elitist and classist started to reveal itself on a large stage. There was a realization that once the 99%’ers enjoy something, the 1%’s start to rapidly reclassify it into lower-class terms like “entertainment”. They are reserving the word “Art” as a term only meant for their own global social club.

The value is shifting

Now we open Meow Wolf Denver. 50,000 sq. ft. of absurd artistic creations. 40ft tall monumental sculptures that are handmade by hundreds of artists across mediums. 150 local Denver artists with rooms, individual sculptures, paintings, animations, and sound. A whole world filled with Artistic creations by Artists, one of the largest and most significant art exhibitions in the world, on the scale of any other single Artistic creation imaginable.

Cathedral Meow Wolf Denver
The Cathedral, Meow Wolf Denver

And folks love it. On Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth… families of all backgrounds and regions, folks with all kinds of varying ideologies are experiencing a World of Art through Meow Wolf for $35. Plus, they are doing so within a context that welcomes them and values their patronage. We sold 100,000 tickets before we opened our doors. So, the value is shifting.

A new model

Although we admittedly have a very long way to go, the value is absolutely shifting for the artists too. The Meow Wolf model employs hundreds of artists on salary and with benefits. We are only at the onset of what is possible here. And believe me, we are working hard to far surpass expectations. The model also creates commissions for many independent artists that a few years ago may have seemed impossible. We are only at the first phase of where we can go with that, too.

So now there’s a financial model in the world of Art, which is still in its infancy. This acts as a blueprint for many others to follow — and many others are following it. Factory Obscura in OKC, Fairgrounds in St. Pete, Hopscotch in San Antonio, Other World in Columbus, Seismique in Houston, the list goes on.

Projected Desert MW Las Vegas
The Projected Desert, Meow Wolf Las Vegas

The value model is very young. We have many evolutions to make before we can look at it as a company or as an entire emerging industry and say “Yes, this is where want to be”. But the first seed has been planted and it’s undeniably on a better trajectory of value than the previous Art World model.

That’s where the provocation goes global. The success of Meow Wolf not only challenges the Art World’s definition of Art, but it strikes at the heart of The Art World’s value system. Art World publications and journalists have nowhere to go with the defence of their system, other than to differentiate what we are doing as “Not Art”. That’s their best defence.

Inviting pushback

All the most prominent, paradigm-shifting movements in Art faced the same pushback from the establishment. That was the whole point of Pop Art, to begin with, of which I’d say we are certainly an extension of. If you aren’t being questioned by the established Art World, then what’s the point?

Meow Wolf Due EDG
The Glow Forest at Meow Wolf Santa Fe

It’s incredible watching this all play out over time and in the public. Even our own growing pains around valuing creativity and finding the balance of Art as Business is evolving and doing so on public display. The efforts being made at Meow Wolf will continue to tell this story. I’m hopeful that it will be a triumphant one.

Even so, the kind of radical trailblazing occurring between Art and Business through this model will result in many lessons learned. We’re hopefully pushing forward a more rapid progression of what this blueprint can become for Art and Artists.

Meow Wolf shows there is room for all types of art

There’s room under the big tent of Art for all kinds of work. Stunning paintings and sculptures are valuable and deserve to carry that value. High-cost, exclusively-regarded pieces are here to stay and they should be. Art is a lot of things and should be a lot of things. That is how it should be. There are 8 billion different individuals on this planet and they each have an imagination.

Omega Mart
Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart at AREA15

But attempting to minimize the artistic efforts of admissions-based experiences like Meow Wolf so obviously exposes a defence against the democratization of Art.

And that, ultimately, is what this is: the democratization of Art. As the market becomes injected with many more Artists and Art, it’s obvious that dilution will occur. Yes, the value of these established artworks may go considerably down. But maybe, for the sake of the imagination and for those who are inspired to imagine, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Top image: Claudia Bueno featured at Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart in Las Vegas

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Vince Kadlubek

Vince Kadlubek is a Founder of Meow Wolf, an award-winning Art and Entertainment Production Company. He continues to be a force of vision in the realm of experiential and immersive art focusing on the power of art in co-creating transformative alternate realities

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