Introduced by Jay Leedy, head of business development at Sony, the sponsor, Sheehan began with a brief history of Meow Wolf and its goals.
After a show of hands, it turned out that many of the audience members had been to a Meow Wolf – there are now four around the US in Grapevine, TX; Denver, CO; Las Vegas, NV; and its birthplace of Santa Fe, NM. Another one is expected to open in Houston, TX, in 2024. According to Sheehan, Santa Fe is now the third biggest art market in the world, which is quite a feat for a town of 80,000 people. Back in 2008, Sheehan explained, there was a small contingent of people who wanted something other than the existing fine art galleries.
“There was a bunch of crazy artists doing exactly what they wanted to do, with whatever means they had to do it,” Sheehan says. “They wanted to challenge the status quo and make art that they thought spoke to both themselves and the community.”
Eventually, the dumpster-diving, disruptive style of art that they brought into the community became pop-up shows that traveled around the country. Sheehan says they wanted to build immersive, maximalist, experiential art and accidentally invented it along the way.
“In 2016, we opened the House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, where we're still based. It was the first time that they did something permanent, and it was set up in an old bowling alley with the help of George RR Martin,” he says. After that came Mega Mart, a new experience that starts in a grocery store, followed up by an exhibition in Denver that starts in a transit station and takes the visitor to a whole myriad of other worlds.
“What we do that makes us unique,” he says, “is that we are doing our best to bring people into what is essentially an art gallery, which features the work of hundreds of artists, all clashed together. No frames, no blank white space and labels that tell you who's who, but all of that art is meant to live together and slam into each other, and create an experience that's larger than any one piece of art. We pull it all together into a story.”
For example, Omega Mart is a story that begins in a grocery store where participants arrive as customers and then take journey to unravel what the company behind that store is getting up to behind the scenes.
Step into a refrigerator and enter a new world.
There Are Some Limits On Interactivity
This hole in a closet wall used to be a slide which took visitors to another world, but, Sheehan says, “We have learned, over time, that slides are hard, so if you go to this show now you won't actually get to go down that slide.”
Sheehan stresses that unlike a theme park, Meow Wolf aims to immerse guests in a 360-degree environment, “that tells story simply, but that also allows you to invent a story, navigate on your own, and make your own decisions. Have the freedom to get lost, and hopefully when you leave, the journey you went on is different than anyone else’s who traveled alongside you.”
“In every community we go to we engage dozens of local artists. For example, in Grapevine, 30% of the total square footage is all local artists making what they want to make in their own art form, and joining our stories.”
Sheehan explains the Meow Wolf philosophy. “The whole essence of our world is that really anything that you can dream can be possible. Anything that you can assemble with your hands can be your world. We like to say: if the world I know can be different, can I be different too?”
Meow Wolf’s creative engineering department use projections and video and sound as well as other digital media to make the art interactive. Sheehan says, “We do motion capture and types of interactives, but really, I think the reason why people feel our exhibitions are so interactive is because there's nothing you can't touch, there's nothing you can't try to open or lift or crawl underneath.”
Meow Wolf will soon be on Walkabout Mini Golf. “This is the most popular game for VR right now and we've been working with them for quite a while to build essentially a digital mini golf version of Convergence Station from Denver.
The company is also close to launching an app. Sheehan says, “The goal of this app is not just to extend the way that you can interact with our physical exhibitions, but also to extend the amount of interaction by taking your story outside of the box and into your own home or into the world around you.”
Meow Wolf will continue to host Vortex, its annual festival. “We bring people together with this mind-bending art and celebrate performance art in all of its glory, but we focus on local and up-and-coming BIPOC artists. It’s a unique opportunity to help the local community which is a big part of why I work for this company,” he says.
“We never lost our moral sense of duty to the communities that we're in, and that includes the people who work for us. When we go into a community to hire hundreds of people to work in a physical exhibition, we bring them in in groups and set up games for them to play together. We see who's coming forward and who might be falling. Who the organizers are, and the enthusiastic leaders are.”
Meow Wolf By The Numbers
Since 2017 we have:
- Given away over 64,000 free tickets to nonprofits for whatever that they choose to use them for
- Donated $3.4 million of our revenue to causes
- Our minimum wage has always been $18 an hour everywhere
The Meow Wolf Way
- We've worked with over 1200 artists from the various communities and design those exhibitions to evolve and continue to provide work for artists.
- We have a new program to encourage employees to volunteer and they’ve already given more than 7,200 hours
- We strive to have partners that fit our own mission, including small businesses, female and BIPOC- led businesses.
- We have Certified Autism Centres at every single one of our locations, and we were the first entertainment space in Texas to be certified.
- A have a partnership with AIRA so people who have low vision or blind can be linked to someone who will do a visual description of whatever they're looking at and it's free to our customers. Our creative teams give Aira dense scripts that allow them to do a full, meaningful description.
- We are certified B Corp, which is a mechanism by which you are judged not just by your financial profits but by your impact on your community, your sustainability, and the quality of your work environment.