A Meow Wolf Retrospective with Founder Vince Kadlubek
Published on my blog and theirs
The first time I ever met Vince Kadlubek was at a meeting for the artist’s board for Warehouse 21, a committee I served on briefly several years ago. I was clued by some other folks that there was a schism of sorts going on between the management of Warehouse, (led by Ana Gallegos y Rinehardt) and the kids who were the constituents of that organization. Namely, the kids had grown up and wanted to run the show now – and Vince K. was their leader.
He struck me as smart, somewhat surly, and at the time he seemed to lack a certain level of diplomacy insofar as letting people know that it was time for fresh blood at Warehouse, which at that time was in the process of building its new offices after over a decade in a tiny little space nearby. Nevertheless, I found myself in agreement with the things he was saying, and applauded him for his efforts to elevate himself from program coordinator to Program Director, even as there were forces afoot to make sure he never got the position.
Back-story: Vince K. grew up inside Warehouse 21 and had visions as to what to do with the new building, one that was about ten times larger than the previous building and sported a black box theater and a computer lab, among other attributes. It was the primary hang space for the artsy crowd of Santa Fe teenagers and hosted many art shows and music events for the all ages crowd. At the time I met him, Vince was serving as the program coordinator, which gave him certain duties for helping to put together new events at the space, but he wanted a meatier role – and at the time I met him, he was angling to have the Program Committee to change their rules for the position, which required a college degree that the then-21-year-old didn’t have.
“I think there was concern on the part of Rinehardt that if the rules were changed then I would certainly apply for the position and I might actually get the job and then she’d have to work with me.” And at the time, the fight for who might get the position seemed crucial to the future of the organization and may well have been, for today, that building sits almost empty and begging for clientele, while Meow Wolf, the organization that Vince formed after being canned from Warehouse 21, is without a doubt one of the most successful arts organizations in the city.
Since its inception, Meow Wolf has sponsored a great number of major exhibitions, art shows, and dance parties that have put the fun into the arts scene in ways never seen before in this town (in my thirty years experience here.) While Meow Wolf wouldn’t exist without the thousands of volunteer hours that have been put into it by hundreds of different volunteers, it is the leadership and direction of one person that have really put Meow Wolf on the map and made it an enduring part of the community. And that person is Vince Kadlubek.
After getting asked to leave Warehouse 21, Vince K. wasted no time in figuring out what to do next. If he couldn’t take over the organization that he’d been spending his time on since he was a teenager, he’d do the next best thing and start his own organization. He quickly found a space on the corner of Cerrillos Road and Second Street and called on his posse from Warehouse 21 to start putting the pieces together for something new – within a couple of weeks there was a meeting and the drawing of lots out of a hat to come up with the new name – and Meow Wolf was born.
The first show at that space was called Meowzers and featured murals and installations from two long-time Meow Wolf contributors Quinn and Matt. The exhibition also featured a couple of plays and some keyboard music and was launched on Valentine’s Day, 2008.
“That first space was like the chemistry lab where we first figured out how we would be doing a lot of things,” said Kadlubek. “It was there that we determined that we needed to have weekly meetings, which is something that we still do, and to have membership and a lot of other things.”
In retrospect, that first exhibition lacked what would make Meow Wolf happenings worth going to – and that was the collective signature of many artists under the name Meow Wolf without any attention paid to individual artists. That dynamic was first revealed at Biome Neuro Norb, which appeared in the spring and summer of 2008. It was a collective art installation that really nailed the aesthetic of Meow Wolf, which is basically to take spaces and turn them into environments that are other-worldly and all-inclusive.
“Biome Neuro Norb felt like the chill nook of a disco on a foreign planet,” said Kadlubek. BNN took every surface space of their interior building and transformed it into something completely foreign and interesting. I wrote about that space for my blog at the time and used the blog piece to start talking about what Meow Wolf was doing to various people around town. But it wasn’t until sometime later that Meow Wolf really began to concretize what it was that they were doing with installation.
“The success of Biome Neuro Norb got us a lot of attention, in terms of people showing up and also write ups in the blogs and newspapers,” said Kadlubek. But that same success forced the hand of the landlord, who evicted them in the summer of 2008. They soon found new digs at a location just up the street at Second Street and Hopewell Avenue, across the street from Cloud Clift Bakery. Around this time, a schism developed between Vince and collective co-founder Quinn that forced Vince to re-assess his role in the organization and back out of it. Meow Wolf moved on without their leader. The space was trashed and needed work. It took months just to get the space ready for a real show, which finally opened on Halloween 2008 and was called “Horror.” In this installation, the crew took a creepy space and made it much creepier, less of a haunted house than just a downright scary one. The opening night also featured DJs and live musicians performing and it was a great night to watch the evolution of this collective – with or without Vince.
“I was pretty depressed during that period,” recalls Kadlubek. “The organization I had founded seemed to be doing just fine without me and I had nowhere to go with my creative energies. So I took a breather and watched things unfold.”
Around this time, Kadlubek met David Lockridge, a photographer who wanted to do a solo show at Meow Wolf where he would talk openly about his experiences as a manic-depressive. Vince made the connections for David to do the show at Meow Wolf, and the result was a weekend long event that Vince helped to coordinate, involving himself with Meow Wolf for the first time again. The show was called Hall of Fools and it also featured a metal smithing show and then a D-Numbers event. Over the course of the weekend, the hallway in which it was shown began to take on the elements of what a manic episode looks like.
By the fall of 2009, Kadlubek was managing the Flying Star and was approached by Warehouse 21 Program Director Greg Malone about having Meow Wolf do something with Warehouse 21. Though Vince no longer felt connected to MW, he decided he would write a play and get help from some of the members of MW and just call it a Meow Wolf production. The result was the fantastic “The Moon is to Live On,” which sold out all six nights and really woke people up to what Kadlubek was capable of as a creator and leader. The play was a huge turning point for Vince and Meow Wolf as a whole. It shifted the schism within the organization towards Vince’s favor. Soon after, Kadlubek was involved in another MW show called Habitats, and soon after that, Quinn left the organization after a bit of controversy over a contract with another organization.
In the summer of 2010, Meow Wolf got a call from CCA to do a show there. Together, the group began to dream up a show called “the Due Return” which would feature a large ship installation that would be built on the grounds of CCA. Operating out of workshops on Rufina Street, the organization split up into five different groups that worked from Concept to Design to Pre-fab to Installation.
“To put together something like the Due Return required a great deal of integrity and trust that you cultivate within yourself and then can pass on to the other people with whom you are working,” said Kadlubek. In the end, the Due Return had a $50K budget and 150 people working on it. A Kickstarter campaign helped raised money, but things were helped along mightily by an $8K Site Santa Fe spread grant and a $15K grant from the Albuquerque Community Foundation. The rest was raised through music shows and dance parties, which is the organization’s bread and butter for the raising of money since the earliest days. They also got $10K from private donations.
On opening night, the Due Return had a gate of 1500 people and from then on averaged 3000 people a week. Arts writer Rob DeWalt called it “the most photographed event in New Mexico this year. With so much cash coming through the door, it was clear that the organization needed some real organization, and after much debate and discussion, opted to become an LLC rather than a 501c(3).
“An LLC gives us flexibility to make money for itself like a regular business, but it also allows us to perform non-profit work by aligning itself with existing non-profits.”
There are five owners of the LLC but complex documents that we’d rather not read (re: boring) do reveal that the owners are not permitted to take profit from the LLC.
One of the more exciting spin-offs from the Due Return is a project called Chimera that brings Meow Wolf artists into the Santa Fe Public School system to teach collaboration to the students. This was spawned originally from a side project where members engaged children from Wood Gormley school to design the children’s area of the ship, and when Vince saw their pleasure at seeing their own creations as part of the installation, he knew that this needed to be an on-going program for the organization.
“We approached CCA about it and then approached SFPS,” he said. “It took a lot of time and wrangling to get down to the specifics as to how we’d go about it, but eventually we were given the go-ahead to do it the way we wanted to.” Currently, grants surrounding the Chimera project pay Vince and another Meow Wolf members small salaries, and they also have money to pay the individual instructors for their participation in the project. So far, Meow Wolf has worked with Ortiz, Agua Fria, Gonzales, Ramirez-Thomas and a number of other schools on two separate projects, one where they created recycled creatures and another on producing 30-second films. Daniel Werwath is also involved in this project in helping Meow Wolf to secure grant dollars to allow it to grow.
In addition to local projects, the Due Return sparked interest in installations from other locations, including a massive installation at New Mexico State University called “Glitteropolis,” an installation for the Flux Factory in Queens, and an upcoming installation for the Communikey arts & music festival in Boulder, Colorado.
“Right now, this is as many projects going on simultaneously as we’ve ever done,” said Kadlubek. “Generally we just have One Big Thing going on, but now we’ve taken it to the point where we have lots of things happening at once.”
So what is the next big thing for Meow Wolf? Well, they are of course planning to have the town’s biggest New Year’s Eve party this year with Robocalypse, but by now big kicking dance parties aren’t really stretching the envelope for Meow Wolf. No, what Vince sees as the next big thing is a sequel to “The Moon is to Live on,” a great big garish theatrical production that really tickles Vince’s personal creative energies.
“In the course of working with Meow Wolf, I’ve had to take on a lot of different kinds of roles and build lots of different kinds of relationships,” said Kadlubek. “I’d like the opportunity to do something that really feels good to me personally and that’s more live theater.”
A lot has changed in Vince Kadlubek since I first met him vying for a job at Warehouse 21. It is to my mind criminal that an organization with this much talent and accomplishment goes begging for space in Santa Fe while the organization that refused his offer of help has an enormous building with almost no one in it. It can be said at this point that Warehouse 21 and Meow Wolf serves different communities but that misses the point of the evolution of arts organization. Warehouse 21 has not evolved and it has suffered accordingly. And Meow Wolf stands poised to do so much more than Warehouse ever dreamed of – simply because it allowed a lot of people to follow a dream that is still ongoing.