One of many points of entry to the installation The House of Eternal Return by Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

SANTA FE — It feels as though the elephant in the room at every board meeting for every major art institution in the US is the question of relevance. There is a sense, behind closed doors, that museums are struggling to reconnect with their audience. One difficulty, perhaps, is that the qualifying credentials to work at a museum create a kind of insularity and art-world myopia, disconnected with the attention span and interests of the average American. Another is simply that their governing boards tend to include no artists, and often trend in the direction of people who can spare tens of thousands of dollars for a seat at the table.

Meow Wolf contributors (image by Brandon Soder, courtesy of Meow Wolf)

I love museums, and I also see the ways in which they are out of touch, catering to values that are no longer central to the contemporary experience. I have no desire to argue the inherent value of the practices of long-looking, open-ended critical thinking, or art history — only that traditional art institutions have an uncanny knack for stripping all the fun out of art experiences. So imagine my delight when, with very little preparation or context, I paid a visit to one of the sites developed by the art collective Meow Wolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Visitors can play music on the ribs of this interactive mastodon skeleton

Meow Wolf was established as an art collective in 2008, and in 2016 they opened their first permanent installation, The House of Eternal Return, inside a 20,000-square-foot renovated industrial space in Santa Fe. The House of Eternal Return operates as an immersive “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, offering visitors numerous points of entry into a fantastical and richly layered world. One might follow the initial suggestion to seek clues by opening a mailbox, sitting outside a full-size Victorian house that greets the visitor upon entrance — or one might get excited or distracted and wander off in any of three directions, each of which will offer a radically different introduction to the experience.

An alternate-dimension kitchen, on the “other side” of the installation

The impossibility of pinning down the boundaries of this art experience is exactly what makes Meow Wolf an exciting and challenging philosophical question for an art critic. The contributing team includes some 100 individual artists across several disciplines, including painting, architecture, sculpture, video production, audio engineering, writing, and many more. The site is staffed by these artists, typically going about some kind of obscure maintenance act and outfitted in lab coats. You might engage with them as actors in the narrative; the house, we discover, is occupied by a family seeking metaphysical truth, and who in the process has created a dimensional rift, opening portals to otherworldly dimensions. (You can access these through hidden passageways in the coat closet, the refrigerator, and other places within the house.) The artists on staff might give you clues or information, and they might help you make some discoveries. You can also engage them as artists, asking if they have a direct hand in the experience, and find that they are composers, painters, and sculptors.

Meow Wolf contributor and soundscape composer, encountered inside the installation

Meow Wolf supports itself and its multitudinous members through entry fees, as well as a rotating schedule of concerts and events that take place right in the middle of its chaotic and intriguing environs — and, it must be noted, the beneficence of a few big-ticket donors, including “Game of Thrones” fantasy powerhouse George R.R. Martin. It is easy to imagine this model being applied any number of ways — and indeed, the success of The House of Eternal Return has officially led to a new Meow Wolf wonderland that will be located in Denver.

As an artist and maker, as well as a writer and someone who understands the deeply rooted desire to touch the art, I was extremely heartened to see that there are new art spaces that value maker and viewer experience, and that inspire their visitors to get involved. Maybe I am one of only a few people who can spend an hour in the Rothko Chapel as easily as in The House of Eternal Return. Sometime during that hour, I lost track of my little sister and, just for a few anxious minutes, slipped into the fully immersive experience of worry that she had been eaten by a dimensional void. As Meow Wolf’s brisk attendance on a random Monday afternoon suggests, I am just one of many who finds it to be a gripping and visceral art experience.

Visitors scour a newspaper left on the kitchen table for clues. Nearby, a portal in the refrigerator offers access to an inter-dimensional travel port.

Videos embedded within the installation provide exposition and further humanize the fictional family.

Detail of The House of Eternal Return

Visitors in the living room investigate family albums and other ephemera left behind.

Evidence suggests that things did not turn out well for the missing hamster.

Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico holds regular open hours, special events, concerts, and educational programs.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....