The story of Meow Wolf starts in a coffee shop with a boy crushing on a girl… sort of.
Really, the story of the Santa Fe-based art collective has a lot of beginnings — as many as the dozens and dozens of people who helped bring it to life. The tale behind the multi-dimensional, 20,000 square-foot, fully immersive, technicolor playground in the Sangre de Cristo foothills has it all: friendship, adversity, redemption, heartbreak and mind-boggling success. A decade in the making, after showing more than 20 temporary exhibits in eight cities across the country, Meow Wolf finally opened the doors to its revolutionary arts and entertainment centerpiece, the House of Eternal Return, on March 17, 2016. Now the collective is primed for a national takeover, extending one of its first tendrils into Denver in 2020.
There are a lot of roads that lead to Rome, so to speak, but it seems like Corvas Brinkerhoff’s story is as good a place to start as any.
In the summer of 2006, an early-20-something Brinkerhoff made his way to Santa Fe to buy a motorcycle. With nothing to his name but the bike, a guitar, a tent and some clothes, the Kansas native was just drifting since he dropped out of art school, and New Mexico was just the beginning.
The future chief technology officer of Meow Wolf was camping in Santa Fe National Forest in the evening and making friends at a local coffee shop during the day. He’d go to the coffee shop to have the kind of caffeine-fueled philosophical conversations only a bunch of 20-somethings can have, and it was magical and special in the only way those kinds of conversations at that juncture in life can be.
At that coffee shop he met a girl named Megan.
“She was playing music and I kind of had one of those heart-swooning moments where I fell in love with a stranger watching her perform,” Brinkerhoff says. “After the show we were talking and she invited me to a party at her house, which of course I went to, and met Vince there.”
“Vince” is Vincent Kadlubek, then a 20-something himself, born and raised in Santa Fe. He’d gone through his own period of drifting before he became the CEO of Meow Wolf. The years right after high school were “an awkward time” for the young man who’d recently come out as gay.
About five or six years before he met Brinkerhoff, when Kadlubek was 21, he found himself disenchanted with work — not “the work itself, but the nature of employment,” to use his words — mired in credit card debt and falling behind on rent. (He’d also, by his admission, “trashed” the apartment.) He didn’t know what to do and instead of dealing with it, Kadlubek left the apartment and surfed couches for three or four months.
“I was just going through a lot of rediscovering what was valuable to me, what was my relationship to money, to stuff, to success and fame, all these things I grew up thinking I wanted,” he says. “I kind of let it all go.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2006, and Kadlubek was still trying to find his place (his “anti-authority” attitude had gotten him canned from a job at a local art and entertainment center), but he’d managed to save up some money. There was “possibility in the air.”
And then he met Brinkerhoff at the house party.
“We had one of those amazing conversations where the hair raises on your arms and you feel like, ah, this is important,” Brinkerhoff says. “We stayed up until like 3 in the morning … That’s when I knew, these are my people.”
The house was part of a compound with four residential units, a big courtyard and a park across the street. The core group of people who would go on to form Meow Wolf eventually took over all the units. They called it the “Quadroplex.”
It became the “free church of Meow Wolf,” Brinkerhoff says, part party den, part art house, part music venue, 100 percent underground community center.
“That was a really significant piece of the [Meow Wolf] story because that’s when we really started to see, this is what happens when this group has a place,” Brinkerhoff says.
Kadlubek set about organizing artists from this ragtag team of friends to form a collective. He’d found a space to rent for $900 a month, and he calculated it was pretty doable if enough people pitched in. He rounded up about a dozen people and, drawing random words from two hats, they dubbed their collective Meow Wolf.
Emily Montoya, another Santa Fe native, was one of the founding members. She was home, “taking a pause,” after a year studying Japanese in Tokyo. Montoya loved Santa Fe, but she wondered if there was a future for her there.
“Meow Wolf was definitely born out of this small-town environment, of this high population of artists with very few venues for emerging artists to show in if you’re not involved in the more traditional arts,” she says. “I think small-town boredom is kind of the best incubator for creativity. ”
In the newly rented space, the group hosted shows for other artists and developed the concept for the immersive, multimedia instillations that would become the group’s specialty. In 2008, the collective debuted their first collaborative project, Biome Neuro Norb.
Through it all, Kadlubek was struggling to lead the group.
“Our first space that we had under my leadership we like, trashed, and I was like, fuck, this is who I am, somebody who doesn’t know how to do things the right way,” he says. “I was challenged by the members to own up to that. And I was just like, I can’t handle that, I don’t have the kind of structured brain that’s necessary for this leadership role.”
Most tellingly, his relationship with Brinkerhoff was strained. Kadlubek walked away from the collective in August 2008, his friendship with Brinkerhoff all but gone. He was caught shoplifting once, and says thoughts of suicide plagued him.
But Fate intervened, as is its wont, and Kadlubek met a man who would reconnect him with Meow Wolf and set the collective on its current course.
David Loughridge was a character: a photographer, a set designer and, once Kadlubek met him, an actor. Loughridge also had severe bipolar disorder. He was “magic to be around when he was on an upward swing,” Kadlubek says, but the pendulum always swung back.
“He wanted to do projects, to get involved in Meow Wolf,” Kadlubek says. “He agitated me to make some work and get back with the collective.”
So Kadlubek wrote a play called The Moon is to Live On, with Loughridge in mind as the main character, and in late 2009 he got in contact with Brinkerhoff to discuss the script. The play was a psychedelic epic based around a character who’s going through an early midlife crisis; his dreams are so vivid and dynamic that they begin rippling out into his daily life.
Brinkerhoff had also been disillusioned by the direction Meow Wolf was taking at the time, and the play felt like the perfect way to reimagine the collective. It helped him mend his relationship with Kadlubek, and helped them both rebuild their trust in the potential of Meow Wolf.
At the center of it all was Loughridge.
“David ended up being a really big force in making [the play] come to be and then after that was integrated into Meow Wolf in a real way,” Kadlubek says. “People fell in love with him. He was an incredibly gracious, caring and authentic dude. Always said what he meant.”
But Loughridge’s bipolar disorder could easily, thoughtlessly throw him into weeks of depression. After having tried all the first-line defense options, Loughridge’s doctor suggested electroconvulsive therapy. After weeks of sessions, it seemed to be working.
“He was happier and wanted to do projects again, wanted to work with Meow Wolf more, for all of us to take it to the next level,” Kadlubek says.
Then, after Loughridge’s final ECT session, he reported feeling groggy. He fell into a coma that night. At the hospital he suffered cardiac arrest and died. He was 33.
“For the next two weeks, all of Meow Wolf mourned together,” Kadlubek says. “We talked about the projects we’ve done and how we wanted to honor him. That was the moment of kickstarting us toward House of Eternal Return, energetically. Let’s make something special happen, not necessarily in honor of David, but carrying his spirit.”
Loughridge’s death and the success of The Moon to Live On were turning points for Meow Wolf’s creative process. The play marked the first time the collective was able to turn a profit and develop a loose organizational structure that would allow them to create bigger projects.
Their next step was a 2011 show at the Center for Contemporary Arts called The Due Return, an interdimensional ship stranded on an alien landscape created by more than 100 artists. Audience members were welcome to touch the glowing flora and fauna surrounding the ship and learn about its passengers through a fictional archive.
It was a smashing success that only left one problem: Where would the collective go next?
“One of the things we thought made that show work was it had that singular image anyone can describe,” Brinkerhoff says. A ship. That was easy enough to convey.
A house. That’s easy enough, too.
And with that, House of Eternal Return was born.
Of course it wasn’t that easy. The collective was going to need a bigger space and that was going to cost money. It was going to mean making investment pitches to fundraise, developing an employee structure out of a group of artists and creating a business model that would support a solvent company.
It just so happened Kadlubek had the ear of Game of Thrones author and fellow Santa Fe resident George R. R. Martin, whose local theater Kadlubek had worked at for a time. Martin ultimately purchased and renovated an old bowling ally to the tune of $3 million for the art collective.
“How many people would really understand this idea of creating these elaborate worlds and what are the odds that one of those people lives in Santa Fe and is a fan of Meow Wolf?” Brinkerhoff asks. “It’s just a stroke of pure luck.”
The House of Eternal Return saw 400,000 visitors in its first year, half a million in its second year, and boasts a staff of nearly 200. It tells the story of a family from Mendocino, California, trapped a dimensional rift. Their Victorian home is filled with portals beyond time and space, where the audience can dip in and out of supernatural settings by walking through a refrigerator door or sliding through a clothes dryer. Like the ship, there are clues about the family’s life scattered through the house. There are fantastical tree houses and dinosaur bones that glow in the dark and a functioning harp with lasers for strings. In February the installation closed for a few weeks for updates, including a cafe, the Cake Room and a new portal into the multiverse. They say you need more than 100 hours in the installation to see everything it has to offer.
In 2019 Meow Wolf will open its second permanent installation in Las Vegas, followed by the opening of its third iteration in Denver in 2020. Brinkerhoff says they’ll announce two more locations later in 2018.
The rapid success has created growing pains as the collective learns how to balance business and art.
Montoya, lead artistic director and graphic designer, will be splitting her time between Denver and Las Vegas as the new installations develop.
Each new installation will be created 50 percent by local artists and 50 percent by the Santa Fe collective.
“We’re trying to build a structure that these new artists can plug into and feel really excited about,” Brinkerhoff says. “We really want whatever community we’re in, we want that project to be embraced in a meaningful way.”
For the founders of Meow Wolf, the experience is a lot like watching a child take its first steps, or handing a teenager the keys to the car.
“It’s getting to the point where we just had our 10-year anniversary, and it might have been our baby once but now it’s like a preteen,” Montoya says.
“In a lot of ways we’re just along for the ride.”