PHOENIX — It was announced the weekend of February 23 that the Santa Fe-based collective Meow Wolf would be opening a 400-room art-themed hotel in Downtown Phoenix, complete with a 75,000-square-foot exhibition space, in the middle of Roosevelt Row Arts District. The psychedelic, Burning Man-esque vibe of the Santa Fe flagship Meow Wolf has been widely popular, seeing large attendance numbers for the small southwest mountain town.
However, Meow Wolf has not been loved by all in that community. Some, myself included, have been critical of the vaguely colonial subtext that underlies its permanent installation titled the House of Eternal Return. The interactive, two-story Victorian house is centered on the imagined story of a white family from California. This narrative, transplanted into a brown neighborhood in a city that is defined, predicated on, and commodified around Indigenous identity, can be read as tone-deaf at a moment in this country when decolonial narratives are prominent.
Meow Wolf has also adopted a hotel model that feels populist. CEO Vince Kadlubeck shared in a statement on the Meow Wolf website, “Guests are always asking about staying overnight inside of our House of Eternal Return project in Santa Fe, so doing an intertwined exhibition and hotel just made sense to us.” The decision feels more driven by customer service than a curatorial vision.
So what does a Meow Wolf hotel mean for Phoenix?
While it is admirable that a group of artists has been able to be so monetarily successful — Meow Wolf also plans to expand to Las Vegas, Denver, and Washington DC — we have to ask: What is it doing for culture as a whole? I cannot speak for Las Vegas, Denver, DC, or even really Santa Fe, but for Phoenix, it is worrisome. It could dislodge local artists from their downtown and south Phoenix studios as more and more development happens on that scale in the “arts district,” raising prices, making it difficult for small galleries to exist, DIY spaces, and the like. In an article published in AZ Central last year, artists are quoted as speaking out against the rapid development of the neighborhood. There are already fewer galleries on Roosevelt Row than a few years ago, and along Central Avenue in midtown Phoenix, a new multistory, hipster-vibe apartment building goes up every other month. A Meow Wolf Hotel just seems part of the larger gentrification that is displacing people with lower incomes to find shelter and studio space elsewhere.
The problem with Meow Wolf is that it is a supreme act of late stage capitalism disguised through the collective’s mantra of the underdog as art savior. It is in fact a corporate entity, partnering with another corporate entity, True North Studio, for the Phoenix project. In their 2018 documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story, the collective refers to themselves in one instance as “Santa Fe’s orphans of neglect,” which can be viewed as insensitive if not ignorant to what brown people working in contemporary art in Santa Fe go through to show their work that may not fit into the establishment of Canyon Road art galleries.
In a media advisory released on their website, Kadlubek stated, “our intention for this venture is to collaborate with the creative community in greater Phoenix to produce an authentic, local statement of expression which will bring further excitement and creative energy to the Roosevelt Row Arts District. This project is going to be truly monumental on so many levels.” While it is good to hear that Meow Wolf wants to collaborate with local creatives in this endeavor, it is important for the creative community here to know what that collaboration looks like. Is it ongoing? Is it a one-off? Are local artists going to be engaged in planning, or will they simply be commissioned for a project here and there to have the illusion of community buy-in? None of this information, to my knowledge at least, has been made available.
Over the past week, I consulted with other members of the creative community, including Indigenous artists, curators, museum directors, and professors, and the sentiment is overwhelmingly the same: We are all curious to see what Meow Wolf will do and how it will function in the bourgeoning landscape of downtown Phoenix, but we also worry that it could be harmful to the city’s cultural framework. The main critique myself and others in Phoenix have regarding this Meow Wolf Hotel is that a huge opportunity was missed to talk with individuals and entities within greater Phoenix about this project prior to the big public announcement. There could have been inclusivity and open dialogue about the opportunities and potential pitfalls that could be present with this project from the get go, but that does not seem to have occurred.
That said, based on the conversations I have had, the Phoenix art community is still open to collaboration. Meow Wolf, we welcome the opportunity to sit down to discuss your projects, share our work with you, and see where we can find common ground to work together in a healthy, sustainable, and accountable way.