There wasn’t much fuss after Meow Wolf announced plans to bring a hotel and arts venue to Phoenix. The Santa Fe, New Mexico-based arts collective is working with developer True North Studio to open the creative space in a downtown arts district called Roosevelt Row.
But that’s changed in recent days because a local curator took issue with the plan.
Meow Wolf founder and CEO Vince Kadlubek shared the collective’s plans on Friday, February 22, during a private event at monOrchid, the building that houses True North Studio’s Phoenix offices. The event included a film screening for a documentary about how and why Meow Wolf was created.
Three weeks later, a Brooklyn-based online culture forum called Hyperallergic published an opinion piece by Erin Joyce. She’s a Phoenix-based art critic who also serves as fine arts curator for the Heard Museum. Joyce slammed Meow Wolf, describing it as “a supreme act of late stage capitalism disguised through the collective’s mantra of the underdog as art savior.”
As Phoenix New Times' sister paper in Denver, Westword, first reported, hundreds of Meow Wolf supporters took issue with Joyce’s stance. Some weighed in through the comments section for her article. Others turned to social media, after Meow Wolf published a link to Joyce’s piece on its Facebook page, and parodied the title of her piece by asking readers this question, at the top of its lengthy rebuttal: “Hey Phoenix, whattya think? Is our expansion into your city worrisome?”
But here’s the dilemma – most of the people who responded aren’t from Phoenix.
That doesn’t mean Phoenix creatives don’t have opinions on the Meow Wolf project.
Joe Willie Smith, a Phoenix artist who’s been active on the downtown arts scene for decades, learned about Meow Wolf’s plans after the controversy ensued. He’s optimistic about Meow Wolf’s plans, which include building a multilevel hotel that includes an immersive arts space. The hotel will be located at 811, 813, and 817 North Third Street, which is currently a vacant lot, located just south of Roosevelt Street.
“The Meow Wolf concept is very exciting, especially for me,” Smith wrote in a recent message to Phoenix New Times. “My work has been pushing boundaries for quite some time and finding a receptive venue that may be an opportunity to explore large edgy concepts is very refreshing.” Smith creates large-scale interactive installations that combine sound, digital components, and found objects – which were featured last year in a solo exhibition at Mesa Arts Center.
Others worry just the opposite could happen.
Kim Moody, founding director for Alwun House, is among them. “My concern with Meow Wolf’s immersive, high-end art hotel and gallery is that it will not engage the very local artists whose sweat and perseverance created the Roosevelt Row cachet they’re cashing in on,” he shared in a recent message to New Times. Alwun House is located in the Garfield neighborhood just east of Roosevelt Row, where it first opened during the early '70s.
Meow Wolf hasn’t announced specific plans for engaging local artists. But it addressed the issue in its February 22 news release about the Phoenix project. “The project will feature a massive, 75,000 square-foot exhibition area complete with a 10,000 square-foot music and performance venue,” the release states. “Our hotel will include approximately 400 rooms designed by local artists that explore all forms of overnight experiences.”
It's already talking with several Phoenix artists, including the Maker Twins. Based at The Armory near Grand Avenue, Pat and Mike Murray are known for large-scale installations shown in settings such as the Burning Man festival. Most recently, they created a giant dress form sculpture installed at monOrchid in Roosevelt Row.
Turns out, Meow Wolf has worked with Phoenix-area artists in the past. Dain Quentin Gore created work for the House of Eternal Return, the flagship Meow Wolf art installation located in Santa Fe. “I’m not worried at all about Meow Wolf coming to Phoenix,” he says. “From everything I’ve ever seen them do, I truly believe they will do things right.”
It’s been three years since Meow Wolf opened the Santa Fe space, after transforming a former bowling alley with significant financial support from George R.R. Martin, the science fiction writer best known for Game of Thrones.
For the Phoenix project, it's partnering with Jonathon Vento, who heads the True North Studio real estate development firm. Vento recently purchased monOrchid from photographer Wayne Rainey. It's working on another project called the Roosevelt Land Yacht Club, along with architect Alison Rainey.
Bill Dambrova, whose Goat Heart Studio is located in a creative enclave along Grand Avenue, created a mural at the House of Eternal Return in early 2018. “I have nothing but positive things to say about Meow Wolf,” he says. “Working with them was awesome.” Dambrova says he’s excited about the Phoenix project, in part because it will make downtown a more interesting place. “I want weird and awesome art stuff in town that’s strange and unexpected.”
Other artists are hoping to work with Meow Wolf moving forward.
Daniel Funkhouser, a Phoenix artist who also works as a preparator for Scottsdale Public Art, shared his thoughts in a written message to New Times: “I’m excited about the Phoenix location. I’m glad people are investing in art and creating real jobs for artists. Meow Wolf has said they’re committed to working with local artists and that’s what I’m most interested in.”
Funkhouser attended the February film screening at monOrchid, which was by invitation only.
Lily Reeves, an artist who specializes in light-based installations, expressed a similar sentiment on her Facebook page, where she also called out Joyce for making a museum salary while criticizing an arts collective that employs hundreds of artists. “It’s about time someone ran a business, successfully, and shut down all these bullshit non profit entities, galleries, and museums who run off unpaid interns and shameful exploitation of artists,” Reeves wrote.
"We’re at the very beginning of this project,” Meow Wolf founder and CEO Vince Kadlubek told New Times by phone Monday. “We’ll probably end up engaging thousands of artists through a variety of processes and calls.” The project is still three or four years out, he says. And it probably has room for 300 to 500 local artists to participate.
Even so, not everyone is a fan.
Like Joyce, Pete Petrisko calls out Meow Wolf for cultural colonialism. Petrisko is a Phoenix artist, musician, and community activist whose projects have included stickers installed around Roosevelt Row that highlight the area as a "good eats" district rather than an arts district. “They’re building a hotel in an Arts District, which is itself an elitist model that promotes cultural colonialism,” he told New Times in a written message.
The Meow Wolf website describes the collective’s approach to engaging artists and other community members, and highlights specific examples of community partnerships in the communities where it's creating work. It's also working to develop installations in Denver, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.
But Petrisko says the Phoenix outreach has primarily consisted of the by-invitation-only screening at monOrchid.
“We’ve already connected with quite a large amount of artists, having tons of conversations at coffee shops and visiting art spaces in Phoenix,” Kadlubek said.
It’s possible some critics will change their perspective once Meow Wolf makes public announcements about specific plans for hiring local artists and talking with community members. But others object to the Meow Wolf model, period.
Douglas Miles, an indigenous artist whose “Everyday Sacred” exhibition at Modified Arts opened earlier this month, is among them. His exhibit includes life-size images of indigenous people installed on gallery windows that reflect the new development just across the street, a few blocks east of monOrchid on Roosevelt Street.
“They’re trying to turn homegrown arts and culture into a theme park; it’s the Disneyland of the arts district,” Miles says of the Phoenix project. He questions whether Meow Wolf will have a long-term presence in downtown Phoenix, predicting it will go the way of a mall that loses its popularity. “What’s real is forever; what’s counterfeit is temporary,” he says.
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He’s considered the possible benefits as well, with a skeptical twist. “The upside of a large corporate art park is jobs, new Uber accounts, and tons of kids who might use Meow Wolf to get into art.” But he’s concerned about the possible impact on artists, and underrepresented communities. “If a large corporate arts entity comes to Phoenix, they need to reach out to the blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans that helped build this community,” Miles says.
Those conversations are already taking place, Kadlubek says. “On the outreach side, we’ve talked to Adam Lopez Falk, who reached out to us.” His parents, Annie Lopez and Jeff Falk, are both Phoenix artists whose creative roots go back decades in and beyond what’s now called Roosevelt Row. “We’ve begun to engage with him based on some of his input regarding the community and plugging into schools.”
The Meow Wolf controversy is part of a larger dialogue about downtown, including concerns over rampant development in Roosevelt Row in recent years. “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,” Joyce wrote for her Hyperallergic piece. Joyce declined New Times' request for an interview, by the way.
Dambrova considers Meow Wolf part of the solution, rather than the problem. “To me, Roosevelt Row has already gone through a cleansing,” Dambrova says. “Meow Wolf will shake things up, and that’s good.”