LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Meow Wolf has been percolating for 13 years, though the rest of the world has really only known about the immersive, experiential artist collective since the House of Eternal Return opened in Santa Fe in March 2016.
The five years since have seen the company jump onto a superhighway of growth almost as surreal as its artistic creations.
A half-decade ago, it was still a scrappy, quirky arts group from New Mexico that somehow managed to pull off a mind-bending, attention-getting, ticket-selling experience in a onetime bowling alley.
Since then, explosive, exponential growth: Meow Wolf attracted 87 investors to commit $158 million for expansions to big-time locales like Las Vegas, Nev.; Denver; and Washington, D.C. From six original founders, the company expanded to 500 employees (though the pandemic forced a trim to about 270).
Meow Wolf even got big enough and did well enough that employee unrest led to the establishment of a union.
But last week, the mom and pop era ended for good. As the company begins a new chapter in Vegas with the opening of Omega Mart, officials acknowledge the expansion now sets the foundation for the company’s long-term future — with a chance to become a national and even international developer and operator of large-scale, multimedia, interactive art installations.
Co-CEO Jim Ward said that in addition to giving Meow Wolf its first dedicated revenue stream since New Mexico public health orders shut down the House of Eternal Return last year, the Las Vegas outlet will be a test of how a startup can multiply many times over in new markets.
“If you can make it in Vegas, you can make it anywhere,” Ward said. “This is a good validation.”
Company officials caution that while the Las Vegas location might point the direction for the future — Omega Mart is a clear sibling of the House of Eternal Return — it’s unrealistic to believe things will be the way they were when the company found resounding success in Santa Fe.
The converted bowling alley on Rufina Street, they suggest, was something special, and the way it was created is far different from the methods employed for the Las Vegas location and those that will follow.
“Santa Fe was a string of continuous miracles that are not repeatable,” said Corvas Brinkerhoff, one of Meow Wolf’s six founders and senior vice president of experience design and executive creative director at Omega Mart. “This show [in Las Vegas] is using repeatable methods.”
As Meow Wolf grew, so did its structure, including its executive-level platform.
When original Chief Executive Officer Vince Kadlubek stepped down in October 2019, the company elevated a trio of vice presidents — Ali Rubinstein, Carl Christensen and Ward to become co-CEOs with specific duties — Rubinstein as chief creative officer, Christensen as chief financial officer and Ward as content chief.
Rubinstein, brought in from Disney in 2019, ditched the old way of one-off art installations, which is what the House of Eternal Return essentially is, and built an organizational structure akin to a factory: an artistic crew able to create Meow Wolf installations one after the other.
“I would say we are a company that can execute multiple large-scale projects while being true to who Meow Wolf is at its core,” she said.
“This is about reaching many more people with our art at the same creative level,” Ward added.
Still, the company’s growing pains are just that — pains. With the early years of Meow Wolf largely unstructured, the installation of a new way of operating sparked employee unrest, which led to a unionization movement last year.
The three CEOs resisted the unionizing efforts by the Meow Wolf Workers Collective collaborating with the Communications Workers of America until a majority employee bargaining unit vote in favor of the union required acceptance by management.
“It is absolutely an opportunity,” Ward said last week when asked about working with a union. “We look forward to collaborating with them. Negotiations have not yet begun [for union contracts].”
Getting from New Mexico to Nevada didn’t happen overnight: Executives from Las Vegas’ Area15, a development of experiential entertainment, approached Meow Wolf in the summer of 2017, just a year after the House of Eternal Return opened to international acclaim.
The Nevada opportunity, Ward said, “jived with what we were doing.”
The Meow Wolf team that opened the House of Eternal Return in ’16 was not equipped or structured to replicate the Santa Fe success that took form in 20,000 square feet of a former bowling alley. Omega Mart is 52,000 square feet and five years later on with technological advances. As the new creation took shape, company officials said they had to adjust quickly.
“We had to restructure the company in a very dramatic way,” Ward recalled. “We did it early enough to get to the point to open in Las Vegas.”
Meow Wolf started as a group of artists who functioned outside the local art mainstream. That spirit was still in place with 70 employees when the House of Eternal Return opened.
After joining the company, and with the Vegas opening approaching, Rubinstein, a 22-year Disney veteran, corralled the loose-knit way Meow Wolf operated.
“We established how we define each role of each individual in the company, task to talent and talent to task,” she said. “It is a clarification of roles and responsibilities. Every role now has a focus.”
Ward added: “[Before,] everybody was working on everything. Now everybody is not working on every project.”
Each new Meow Wolf installation will be unique, but the Las Vegas and Denver projects established the methodology on how to create installations on order.
A free-standing Meow Wolf exhibition in Denver is expected to open later this year, Rubinstein said. Denver and Las Vegas were both announced as expansion sites in January 2018, with initial opening dates for Las Vegas in mid-2019 and Denver in 2020.
Expansions also were announced for Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, both partnerships in larger projects like the one in Las Vegas. Ward said Meow Wolf “is still exploring that relationship” in D.C., and Meow Wolf has halted talks for the Phoenix collaboration with a hotel development.
“The hotel concept in Phoenix, we’re not moving forward with that,” Ward said. “That’s off. But Phoenix is a market we plan to be in.”