(Courtesy John Phelan via Wikimedia)

SANTA FE, NM — Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based corporation that produces immersive art experiences, has laid off 201 of its employees and furloughed an additional 56, leaving the staff at less than half its former size, just under 200 employees. A major source of income for the city of Santa Fe, as well as a top tourist destination and a driver for the influx of younger residents to the area, this downsizing feels symbolic to many who see Meow Wolf as a pioneer of the experience economy boom. At the same time, the company has been criticized for unfair labor practices, colonial narratives, and not living up to its promises to compensate artists fairly.

The employees let go were not just in Santa Fe, but also in Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Washington, DC, where new Meow Wolf projects are in the works. The company raised $158 million in 2019 to go toward its expansion. A statement from Meow Wolf leadership Jim Ward, Ali Rubenstein, and Carl Christensen said that the discharged employees will be given “generous financial severance packages,” and “months of support in many ways,” according to the Santa Fe Reporter. The details of the severance packages were not specified.

“Given the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding the time of recovery, in addition to the need to properly position the company for survival and future success […] we will have to part ways with a significant portion of our family through layoffs and furloughs,” the statement said.

In a post on Facebook, Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek wrote: “We built a phenomenal, large, and communal company. Not just a company, legitimately a family. […] But the pressure of the House being closed and the global economy in question, we had to scale back and pivot strategies.”

Becky Guy, a project manager for the new Las Vegas project, was one of the employees laid off on Friday and said she understood the decision. She told Hyperallergic “Meow Wolf’s entire business model is based on this experience economy, launching into a new realm for the arts sector. […] What that does is leave a company pretty vulnerable when you have something like a pandemic.” She said that the Las Vegas project is still moving forward, but that the “team was pretty decimated. I think it’s an overall tightening the belt, a numbers game in order to save the company.”

In the past year, Meow Wolf has been accused of discrimination and found guilty of violating Santa Fe’s living wage ordinance, and has faced at least two lawsuits and seen a change in leadership. “I think lawsuits come with the territory when you get to a certain size and a certain prestige,” Guy said. “There’s also a financial impact of those things. If there’s a connection [with the layoffs], I think it was another factor that made it challenging financially before this pandemic hit.”

Guy also raised concerns about what the layoffs could mean for Santa Fe. “Meow Wolf has done so much for the state of New Mexico and the city of Santa Fe in bringing young people here. I think one of the biggest things that could come out of this would be a mass exodus […] It would be really sad to undo all that Meow Wolf has accomplished for the community.” While some would disagree due to the city’s rapidly increasing cost of living and widespread gentrification, it’s undeniable that Meow Wolf has been a major economic driver in the city for the past six years. How the company recovers from the effects of COVID-19 will have widespread repercussions in Santa Fe and beyond.

Ellie Duke was the Southwest US editor at Hyperallergic. She also co-edits the literary journal Contra Viento. She lives in Santa Fe, NM. Find her on Twitter.