Editor’s note: As part of a report on New Mexico’s economy, PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke recently with Vince Kadlubek, the CEO and co-founder of the booming Santa Fe-based arts collective Meow Wolf. The group’s warehouse includes a children’s center, a music venue and a series of rotating, interactive installations, most recently a “multidimensional mystery house.” Their conversation is published here, edited for length and clarity. Watch the full broadcast segment on tonight’s NewsHour program.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, what’s the idea here?
VINCE KADLUBEK: Meow Wolf Art Collective here in Santa Fe, we have always wanted to create these immersive, storytelling experiences. This is our first opportunity, here at the House of Eternal Return, to do that on a major scale, in this 20,000 square foot, old bowling alley. We transformed that space into this explorable, imaginative, wonderland for audiences.
PAUL SOLMAN: You’re the video game generation, right?
VINCE KADLUBEK: We are the video game generation, undoubtedly, yeah.
PAUL SOLMAN: And this is kind of an actual immersive, touch it, video game?
VINCE KADLUBEK: Totally. I think this is the evolution of video games. I don’t think that Meow Wolf exists without video games as the storytelling medium precursor. We grew up with games like Myst, for instance, or Resident Evil, or these games that put us into spaces that we could explore at our own will. And video games opened up this sense of curiosity, and exploration, and discovery that we did not have outside in the real world, because the real word is so scripted. It’s like, “Go here, do this. Go to college.”
PAUL SOLMAN: Did you ever dream that you were going to be able to create something this elaborate, this huge?
VINCE KADLUBEK: We knew that we could create something like this from a creative standpoint. We knew that the artists that we worked with could create monumental, imaginative spaces. Whether or not somebody would come forward and be the angel investor, you know, that would say, ‘I get what you’re doing, let’s do it. I’m going to believe in your vision.’ That was the question mark.
PAUL SOLMAN: What odds would you have given?
VINCE KADLUBEK: Oh, it was a one in a million. I mean, there’s no one else who’s done it before, and I know that there’s artists out there who have wanted to. So, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and we just happened to be the right place, the right time, with the right person, which was George R. R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones.
PAUL SOLMAN: How large an artist community is there in New Mexico?
VINCE KADLUBEK: [In] New Mexico and Santa Fe, we have a ton of artists. We have people who come here for the beautiful landscape. We have people who come here for the history and the culture, the indigenous culture, Hispanic culture, it really kicks up a lot of creative energy…
Our company is about 170 people, filled with artists mostly within the range of 20 to 40 years old, but that wasn’t always the case. It’s taken us about 10 years to really kick up this amount of momentum to get to this level.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you guys thought of it as a way to express yourselves and maybe even get paid to do so, right?
VINCE KADLUBEK: We weren’t thinking about money at all. When we started this, we were pulling stuff out of dumpsters and stapling it on walls, and making art out of Christmas lights, and paper mache, and whatever we could get our hands on, just to be able to create the spaces that felt cool to us, that felt interesting, and then, people started to respond to that. That’s when we started to realize, ‘Oh, maybe there’s an opportunity for us to actually to sustain off of this work.’
At first, that looked like non-profit. It was me writing grant applications to foundations, to try to get Meow Wolf funded through the classic non-profit route. But I quickly realized that that wasn’t going to get us the sort of traction that we needed.
PAUL SOLMAN: Because you couldn’t raise enough money that way. You’re too grungy for a major New York foundation?
VINCE KADLUBEK: For a big foundation, right, exactly. You know, it’s like, the Andy Warhol Foundation would have a really hard time giving to Meow Wolf at this point. And so we shifted, we went to for-profit. I learned some basic business aspects, and I figured out what debt meant.
PAUL SOLMAN: Did that come as a shock?
VINCE KADLUBEK: It was amazing to me. I grew up thinking that debt was this big, evil thing. Our whole generation does. It’s like, you fall into debt, and you spend the rest of your life trying to get out of it, and stay away from debt. And when I realized what debt actually was, that somebody was willing to lend me money to build something incredible, that would end up paying them back plus a little bit of a return, and I crunched the numbers, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this makes total sense.’ So, we raised $1.5 million of debt in order to get this place up and running…
We modeled this all off of the idea that we were going to bring in 125,000 visitors, which was going to result in about $4 million of revenue. We ended up doing four times that in our first year. So we have accelerated debt repayment. We’ll have our entire debt paid off in two and a half years, and now the plan is to take this concept, and take it to the whole next level, and expand it into other cities around the country.
PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, so this is like a Cirque du Soleil model, or something?
VINCE KADLUBEK: We view The House of Eternal Return as a prototype. We view it as a, ‘Here’s what we could do with limited funds, and breakneck speed.’ What if we had some more time, and some more money, and a bigger space? So, we’re going to be going to some other cities and doing even bigger, even more incredible experiences in other cities.
PAUL SOLMAN: What does this do for the New Mexican economy?
VINCE KADLUBEK: It’s a paradigm shift, because it opens up the New Mexican economy to millennials and creativity, in a way that really no other business can do at this time. We’re not a big tech company. We’re not a big medical healthcare company. But we are one of the biggest and fastest growing creative companies in the world, and that is basically telling the outside world that New Mexico is fun, we’re weird, we’re creative, we’re positive, we have really interesting things happening. And just that perception, the perception that that’s sending out to the world is, a radical shift for where people have been coming from.