Meow Wolf in Santa Fe (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

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.

Meow Wolf in Santa Fe (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

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.

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...

20 replies on “Why Meow Wolf Coming to Phoenix Is Worrisome”

    1. naw.
      This article only represents the views of the author. Plenty of us here absolutely psyched to have Meow Wolf come to phoenix

    2. I had no idea who she was but according to her linkedin profile, she’s been at the Heard Museum for 2 years. Does she even know the history of the local arts scene? All due props to the Heard but it’s not exactly the leading voice of Phoenix arts culture and this writer is pretty nervy for positioning herself as spokesperson for the Phoenix art community who is in the position to give the final word on whether this project is okay.

  1. This article represents a common trend in millennial (or even just contemporary) culture to pick apart anything relatively new/polarizing, so as to find some injustice or underrepresented minorities being poorly afflicted.

    Those are real things in the world, but Jesus, not everything exists in some liberal arts SJW frame. Lighten the hell up! Meow Wolf is doing some really cool things, let them expand and bring it to other parts of the country.

    There will be issues, I’m sure they’ll try and resolve them. But it’s not going to please everyone, the world will never work that way.

    Writing a blog in a pretentious tone isn’t going to solve it.

  2. Wow! How can you criticize a business model that has actually helped a local art community and local artists as much as Meow Wolf has? Is it because MW is shaking up the old guard, status quo galleries, museums and such?

    Meow Wolf and its influence is not going away, it has already rocked the art world. Just go to any major city and see how art exhibits are being shown. Instead of the traditional , static installations, there is a wave of artists, galleries,festivals, and museums that are offering a more experiential show that resonates with creatives and non creatives alike. This can be attributed to Meow Wolf and its unique spin on immersing the individual into the art itself.

    My husband is a full time artist in Dallas and we envy cities that have been chosen to receive a Meow Wolf installation. We have artist friends who work for Meow Wolf and they are now able to have viable full time employment while still pursuing their own stand alone art careers. Before that they had to work in the service industry , or taxi driving etc. Have you the author of this article had to make ends meet doing something completely out of your wheel house in order to pay the bills?

    Yes, Meow Wolf has shaken the status quo. And that’s a good thing! The elitest way of art being enjoyed or made is now giving way to a more inclusive, collective model being enjoyed by people from every walk of life.
    While visiting MW I personally witnessed a group of children one day all playing together inside Wayne Coyne’s Kings Head (temporary installment last year)They were crawling in and out , laughing , rolling around, laying beside each other to take in the light show within, looks of pure bliss upon their little faces. They were all strangers who had become friends in that brief moment of joy. They were all ethnically different. In this time of hate and division going on in the world, it made my heart smile.
    I consider Meow Wolf a “memory generator” and all those children will grow up with a beautiful memory of their MW visit that may impact them forever and what they choose to do with their life.
    How lucky Phoenix is to get their next project.
    We will be one of the first to book a room. We have been to Phoenix several times (including last September) and it begs for something like a Meow Wolf.
    Sandy Emmons

  3. As a New Mexico local I can assure you that your worries are completely unfounded. This article provides zero statistical information and very little empirical data on top of that. It is lazy writing at best and it comes off as nothing more than click bait and jealousy. Meow Wolf is one of the best and most exciting things to happen to New Mexico in years and it has actually helped artists in Santa Fe become more financially successful. What do you think people do once they’re done at meow wolf? They walk around all of the galleries downtown. I find it fascinating that one could actually convince themselves otherwise. Clearly this article does not come from the perspective of actually experiencing Santa Fe and Meow Wolf. The best and most unique art in Phoenix and Tempe is glass. That’s the industry that actually makes money there. There exists way more of a crossover between the type of art sold in galleries in Santa Fe and the art at Meow Wolf than there will be between the type of art sold in Phoenix and that in the new hotel complex. Before Meow Wolf most people came to Santa Fe to buy expensive art. There wasn’t really a lower end market. Meow Wolf has actually changed that for the better. Sorry if you can’t appreciate the beauty of it all.

    1. That is EXACTLY what I did after visiting meow wolf in NM. I spent many hours wandering galleries and open-air shows for local art and purchasing several pieces. Meow Wolf doesn’t exist in a bubble, and anyone who goes specifically for the art is not going to limit themselves to that one location to find it.

  4. The author has a bone to pick with MW, because she perceives their encouragement of unrestricted creativity and support of non-establishment artists as a threat to the elitist, pretentious, and colonialist world of curated art that provides her income. This article is so full of unintentional irony and hypocrisy, it is nauseating and hilarious at the same time.

  5. I have a feeling the article is motivated more out of a disagreement with Meow Wolf’s aesthetics rather than anything else. The author chose to obscure her true intentions by engaging in political sloganeering and dog-whistle theatrics because that’s what plays well with her intended audience. But her arguments are so clearly based on spurious assumptions and un-grounded assertions, that it became clear to me while reading that there had to be something else going on besides the explicit content of the article. My guess is that Meow Wolf is seen by this writer, not so much as an unhealthy collusion of commerce and art, but as an unhealthy collusion of commerce and middle-brow creativity.

    I tend to agree with the author if that’s her true intention. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about Meow Wolf is that it’s art-provoking fun for the entire family. When I visited the installation in Santa Fe I came away with a meh feeling, mostly thinking that it was a great place to take the kids on a rainy day in Santa Fe. It’s like Disneyland for art. (That’s not to diminish what Meow Wolf has done to elevate arts awareness and improve arts accessibility in the Santa Fe community.)

    Perhaps I am projecting my own feelings, but I think the writer may have had a similar response to the Meow Wolf installation. Unfortunately, she chose to couch her thoughts in the language of social justice rather than reveal her aesthetic inclinations, which probably view Meow Wolf as a nice diversion but not nearly as important as the high-art installations of Judy Chicago, Matthew Barney, or Kara Walker, for example.

    IMHO, of course.

  6. It’s pretty clear to most people reading that the author is out to get MW. We know your past connections to the collective. They accuse MW with a lot of wrongdoing, only because they didn’t do research to find out the truth behind their statements. Next time you want to write a hit piece, try doing better research and use less buzz words like “colonialism” and “gentrification”.

  7. This article is written backwards. I don’t feel good about pointing this out, but somebody just had to say something.

  8. There’s precious little band width now as it is. All we see in the MSM is the on-going Trump crisis in Washington. Yes, THAT is a BIG problem – but what about all the news we don’t hear as a result? It feels like conservatives in America love the fact we’re so distracted by the noise that is Trump?

  9. Wow – this Meow Wolf thing looks so mediocre and money-driven, it’s amazing it has so many rabid defenders in these comments! Maybe y’all never heard of Fort Thunder or multiple, other, way-more-rad-than-MW, DIY spaces done with zero money in recent decades, many of which it feels like MW is ripping off completely? Maybe that’s what the article is trying to get at a little bit? That this MW thing is super consumer-driven, which tips it over into being something more like a year-round haunted house tourist attraction for kids, which is fine, but maybe it’s not exactly the most original art project ever and should not be touted as such. To quote the great REVS, “…once money exchanges hands for art, it becomes a fraudulent activity.” Great if y’all love it and wanna work there or go there or give it money, but it’s definitely not any great, original, new concept for artists. Or for capitalists. Might be great for gentrifiers though!

  10. I find this opinion of Meow Wolf to be pretty inaccurate for several reasons. Considering that last time I visited Meow Wolf in Santa Fe there was a new mural that had been installed by Frank Buffalo Hyde who is Native American and a long time local artist here in Santa Fe. I know several other Native American artists that have worked with the Meow Wolf. Not to mention the fact that there is a place in Santa Fe for Native American voices to be front and center which is the Institute of American Indian Arts. So what has IAIA done to ensure the native voice is front and center? I wonder what IAIA has done to try to build a bridge to work collaboratively with Meow Wolf since its a no-brainer that both could benefit from a working relationship. That said, it’s not up to Meow Wolf to consult with Tribes and local Native Nations, Meow Wolf is an arts collective of local artists here in Santa Fe. Everyone who was part of founding MW were locals, so to say that Phoenix should worry about local artists being forced out of their area doesn’t make sense.
    Sorry but your op-ed sounds like you have a personal grudge against Meow Wolf and I feel as a Santa Fe local that Meow Wolf has been the shot in the arm that Santa Fe has needed for a long time.

  11. It’s nice that among other stakeholders the writer talked to indigenous artists but the scope of artists in one of the largest cities in the US extends far beyond the indigenous community. A broad spectrum of artists were included in this past weekend’s Art Detour, Phoenix’s annual celebration of visual art and local artists. Ironically, True North, the corporate partner that Joyce finds problematic, was a partner in this event put on by a nonprofit whose mission is literally “keep the arts integral to the development of our city by connecting artists, business and community” but I am not aware of what role if any the writer or her organization played. If one really was intent on wanting 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”, this would have been the opportunity someone would have taken.

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