Perhaps the only thing more disorienting than visiting the art collective Meow Wolf's permanent art installation, the House of Eternal Return, is getting a Skype tour of the place, which is what I recently received. Labyrinthine and almost hallucinatory, the sprawling former bowling alley has been transformed to a freak-out art mecca, funded by $3.5 million from Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin and another $2.5 million from Kickstarter and other fundraising.
The 20,000-square-foot art space, the size of Gagosian's Chelsea gallery, opened on Friday with a cavalcade of 5,500 visitors in the first three days, including Martin himself and Neil Gaiman. Described by 33-year-old CEO Vince Kadlubek as the "inside [of] a sci-fi novel," the House of Eternal Return is many things: a psychedelic art space, a bar, an educational center, a ceramics studio, and an elaborate music venue (with a half school-bus upper deck), featuring a slew of dream-like elements such as black-light carpeting, a laser harp, pneumatic doors, and a 20-foot climbable lookout tower.
Meow Wolf members are no strangers to creating installations of epic proportions. In 2011, they built The Due Return, a to-scale ship with tiny galleries in place of sleeping berths inside a Santa Fe gallery in six weeks, only to tear it down three months later. However, they've never attempted anything as massive as the House of Eternal Return.
"It's kind of a trip to go from a nights-and-weekends pastime, a labor of love, to a job and this huge multimillion dollar project," said artist David Enoch McPherson, 40, who joined the collective in 2009.
When I received my virtual tour back in late January, the tattooed McPherson, wearing a hardhat and headlamp, was at work on an "alley market bazaar thing," along a walkway with interactive 20-foot ceilings, a manipulatable, video-playing "ATM," and something he described as a "tree-nado," for the forest in the center of the building. Many artists contribute to the space in similarly creative and multidimensional ways.
But it hasn't just been about art. Outfitted with 45 full-time employees (mostly artists), 30 part-time contractors, 40 subcontractors (carpenters and workers), and 35 volunteers, Meow Wolf had to figure out how to properly adhere to building codes. "We have to flame-proof everything in the entire exhibition," said COO Sean Di Ianni, 31, a delightful, slightly elfin man who joined the group a few months after it began. The flame-proofing is important, as the group has a ten-year lease with Martin, with the option to renew.
Initially, Meow Wolf asked Martin, a Santa Fe resident since 1979, to help finance the purchase of the building. "He was like, 'How about I just buy the building, and that'll be my contribution?'" McPherson told me. "And he's leasing it to us for a super, super great deal." Kadlubek, the somewhat clean-cut looking, less visibly tattooed backbone of the group, confirmed: "I'm not going to reveal the lease numbers, but it's generous."
The way they got their feet in the door was unlikely: Kadlubek applied for a marketing position at Jean Cocteau Theater, an indie cinema in downtown Santa Fe reopened a few years ago by Martin. "To my surprise, George R. R. Martin himself interviewed me," Kadlubek said. That was his hook. "I brought a Meow Wolf book to show him our work, and he was impressed," he said. Eight months later, the group approached Martin, who liked their outlandish sensibilities.
Still, Martin's role has remained more of a benevolent landlord than full-on collaborator. "I've seen him periodically," McPherson told me, but "we're not the reason his book hasn't been published yet."
As such, the collective has held onto complete creative carte blanche. "Meow Wolf has been able to maintain a balance of totally spontaneous and a crazy, spastic, free-for-all, punk-rock, improvisational vibe; and then some people are very organized, very Type A," said McPherson.
It's a refreshing departure from Sante Fe's prevailing art scene, which I witnessed as a resident for seven years, from 2007–14, a land of Georgia O'Keeffe and tumbleweed paintings. Meow Wolf, founded in 2008, draws from a much more DIY and collaborative vein. I remember attending Meow Wolf's first gallery openings, great tangled conglomerations of neon colors and broken televisions with flowing cans of PBR. Even then, there was an energy and freshness to the art. Kadlubek cited Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell as influences, citing the "very immersive and colorful" qualities of both, as well as the "selfie-appropriate" Kusama, in particular.
"The Santa Fe art world isn't very contemporary," McPherson said, a diplomatic understatement. Though the city houses SITE Santa Fe and a handful of modern-art galleries, the city with the third-largest art market in the country is full of what locals call "Texas art"—bizarre cow paintings and lurid sunsets for wealthy visiting Texans to purchase and take back to their lairs.
"The art-world side of it is really funny," said Kadlubek. "Our focus is more on welcoming a radical new demographic into the art world." He says it'll fit right into the current "experience economy." Draped and saturated in pigment and pattern and rife with kaleidoscopic light, "it's going to be such a selfie place," he predicted.
As art director Caity Kennedy showed me around, the lip-ringed 32-year-old pointed out such elements as a "Baba Yaga hut," giant robotic raven, grass made of cardboard, metal archway of televisions, and a geodesic dome "raised off the ground, full of foot-wide, glowing glass animal eyes." Her tour resembled what would happen if, say, Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland came to life and were reimagined as an exhibition space.
Whatever it is, it's not Six Flags or Disney World. "Theme parks aren't made by artists," said Di Ianni. "Disney touches on it at their amusement parks," Kadlubek said, but this space is "giving people a new way to experience fantasy."
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Marie Claire, Bustle, Bookforum, the Rumpus, and BOMB.