Dennis Bartels, the former executive director of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the granddaddy of hands-on science museums, uses the term “participatory art” to describe this kind of work. “Nothing happens if you don’t activate it,” says Bartels, who’s now chair of the board of directors at Burning Man. “Maybe it’s climbing all over the art at Burning Man, or playing with the phenomena at an Exploratorium exhibit. If you just stand there looking at it, you’re not getting a tenth of what the experience could be. You only get as much back as you’re putting in.”
Bartels likes that “there’s nothing too precious” in these kinds of environments. “You look at an art museum or gallery in a very different way,” he says. “Everything’s so valuable that it immediately creates a sort of hands-off feeling.”
I feel pretty hands-on as I push through the fridge, heading down a bright, narrow passage that empties into a retro-futuristic travel agency. A couple entering the room looks at me as if they think I’m part of the installation’s narrative, someone there to make the experience even weirder.
The hours spin by in a swirl of color, texture, and story. I marvel at how each room bears the stamp of its respective creators, from preternaturally vivid forests with velvety branches to a black-and-white cartoon room that makes you feel like Betty Boop. I push through more portals, climb into tree houses, and jam on a xylophone made of glow-in-the-dark mastodon bones with a toddler.
Some of the rooms look meticulously planned and executed, while others look as if scavenged treasures were staple-gunned to the wall in a fit of maximalist glee. Sound adds another stratum of sensation: machine noises, eerie music, soundtracks of videos that look like they were made on other planets. I feel my eyes pinwheeling, my brain quaking like Jell-O, my hands reaching out for the next thing to touch.
I exit through the gift shop, the one thing that feels routine about my visit. I, for one, can’t resist cool merch, but a question that’s been treading water at the edge of my mind swims front and center: What, if anything, did these radical artists sacrifice by making it big? Kadlubek hasn’t been shy about wanting to make Meow Wolf a billion-dollar company.
Meow Wolf’s creative impact beyond the art world is undeniable, says Hugh McDonald, executive producer at Ideum, an Albuquerque area company that creates interactive digital exhibits for museums, and for well-known corporations he is reluctant to name. Clients tell him they want their own Meow Wolf, McDonald says. “They’re asking for an immersive experience—something outside of the frame.”
There’s a debate in the art world about these experiences, and whether they qualify as anything more than money-making amusement parks.
Kadlubek bristles at any suggestion that Meow Wolf is too focused on business. “[Critics] say, ‘Hey, what are you doing making money off of art? What are you doing participating in capitalism?’ But how are we going to change the system if we’re not part of it?”
Meow Wolf marketing director John Feins puts it this way: “We want artists to be able to quit their day jobs. To do art full-time.”
Finding that balance between Meow Wolf’s explosive growth as a business and the rebellious outsider principles of the group’s early days has its challenges.
“We want to preserve all we can of collectivism but also be a legit company that people want to invest in,” Feins says. “We’re in an ongoing conversation. ‘Are we staying true to ourselves? Is there a better way to do it?’”
One thing’s for sure. Meow Wolf won’t remain static. There’s a sense that the art collective that became a company is a living, breathing creature. Artists involved in the group’s projects have referred to Meow Wolf as a beast, with its own agenda, that they are helping bring to life.
Toward the end of my stay at the House, I look into another portal, this one edged in what looks like cake icing. It’s a hall of mirrors, amplifying an anatomical heart into infinity. The piece, “Cakeland,” by the artist Scott Hove, is part of a 2018 update that saw new art introduced to many of the installation’s rooms. In an announcement about the addition, Meow Wolf noted, “We haven’t just expanded our Multiverse, we’ve blown it wide open. Maximal is more, and more is what we always want! More interactivity, more sound, more infinity!”
Catching glimpses of myself in the prism of mirrors, I realize that, like all of us, Meow Wolf looks different from every angle. It contains multitudes. And with its continued growth—more visitors, more installations, and more creative exploration—even infinity doesn’t seem out of reach.