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SANTA FE, New Mexico — On Friday, November 8, it was announced that Meow Wolf, the artist cooperative-turned immersive arts sensation, has obtained a job training grant from the state of New Mexico to the tune of $528,283. The grant, which requires Meow Wolf to front the costs before being reimbursed by the state, will allow Meow Wolf to hire 26 new people. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the new hires “largely will work on exhibitions under construction in Las Vegas, Nev., and Denver, and in the planning stages in Washington, D.C.”
Founded in 2008 as a small collective, Meow Wolf’s now-famed House of Eternal Return immersive arts experience debuted in 2016 and has become one of Santa Fe’s main tourist destinations. The company employs 452 people and has already been awarded $910,371 from New Mexico’s Job Training Incentive Program and $1.1 million in state and city grants to purchase the warehouse in which it is located.
At what costs are these jobs being created? As Hyperallergic reported in July, two women have filed a suit against Meow Wolf for discrimination and unfair labor practices, with the goal of a class-action case. And last week Westword reported that Zoë Williams, a Meow Wolf employee in Denver, filed a complaint in August with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. Williams, an artist and activist who serves as the Acting Director of Community Engagement, has joined the lawsuit filed in July. Williams told Westword: “I have been directed to change the evaluations of male employees to make them more favorable so that they can obtain raises and have been forbidden from disciplining these same employees for not completing their work … Further, I have been explicitly directed to give female employees more work than they can handle so they can be targeted for termination.” Williams also spoke of being excluded at work and barred from meetings about diversity and inclusion and discrimination since speaking up about these issues.
The controversy doesn’t end there. In September, Meow Wolf was found in violation of Santa Fe’s living wage ordinance, and former employee Jeremiah Harmon was granted $17,534.95 to make up for lost wages. Days later, Albuquerque lawyer Nicholas Koluncich announced an additional potential class-action suit against Meow Wolf for forcing shareholders to sell their interest in the company.
On October 22, CEO and founder Vince Kadlubek resigned, saying in an open letter on the company’s website that “the toolset [Kadlubek] used to get the company to this point is no longer the toolset needed for further growth or solid execution.” Kadlubek remains on the company’s board and will serve as an executive advisor to the new leadership, which is shared between Chief Creative Office Ali Rubinstein, Chief Financial Officer Carl Christensen, and Chief of Content Jim Ward.
The New Mexico Economic Development Department, which awarded almost $1.69 million in Job Training Incentive Program grants this year, wrote in a press release: “From Meow Wolf’s beginnings as an art collective in 2008, the company has grown into a successful manufacturer in the creative economy. The company creates immersive, multimedia experiences for audiences of all ages.” Bruce Krasnow, a representative from the New Mexico Department of Economic Development, told Hyperallergic: “We see this is as a successful startup company. They pay benefits, they pay health insurance, their wages are much higher than average for the state of New Mexico. … We look for jobs, we look for what their contribution is to the state, how many people they’re going to hire. Outside of that is not something we can really arbitrate.”
This article has been updated to include comment from the New Mexico Department of Economic Development after it responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries.