Philanthropy

The Meow Wolf Art Collective Funds its Work Without Controversial Mega-Donors

Recent criticisms of major donations from donors like the Sackler family raise questions about the future of funding the arts. The Meow Wolf art collective models a new approach.


This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on September 9, 2019.

One of the more contentious topics in philanthropy today is the relationship between donors and the arts. Here the major issue is the donations that the Sackler family—much of whose wealth comes from Oxycontin—has made to art museums. A minor issue has been the recent resignation of Warren Kanders, who owns companies that make tear gas and bullets, from the Whitney Museum board.

I’ve been accumulating clips about the Sacklers for some time, but there are too many developments to write about them. Part of the problem is that there are two generations of Sacklers, and patriarch Arthur Sackler, whose best-known donation is the Sackler Museum that’s part of the Smithsonian, didn’t have anything to do with Oxycontin, which was created a decade after his death in 1987. Arthur Sackler’s widow, Dame Jillian Sackler, forcibly makes this point in this Washington Post op-ed.

The Smithsonian, to their credit, has said they are not changing the name of the Sackler Museum because the agreement they made with Sackler said the name would be “the Sackler Museum” in perpetuity. But they also say that new donor agreements will limit naming rights to 20 years.

Museums rely on patrons to buy art. But is it possible to create art without relying on patrons? Rachel Monroe offers an alternative in her New York Times Magazine profile, of the artists’ collective Meow Wolf.

Meow Wolf offers “immersive experiences.” They currently have an installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they are going to have branches in Las Vegas in 2020 and in Denver in 2021, followed, at some point, by a branch in Washington. They started off life as an LLC but are now a B-corporation. I have not fully understood what tax advantages a B-corporation has over traditional corporations, but I accept that Meow Wolf thinks of themselves as a social enterprise.

The group was a bunch of artistic types who all ended up in Santa Fe. The company’s CEO, Vince Kadlubek, said in a documentary about Meow Wolf that when he was in high school a decade ago he tried to get his teachers to let him work on independent art projects. “I was always coming up with ambitious things to try to sell to someone.”

About half a dozen artists all ended up in Santa Fe and decided to form Meow Wolf. They managed to pool money from their day jobs to rent a 900-square-foot former hair salon, which they turned into an art project. They delighted in collecting trash (since they couldn’t afford traditional art materials) and turning the trash into art. They also enjoyed that they were outsiders whom the more staid art galleries in Santa Fe shunned, since they didn’t produce art that could be sold.

“We work collectively,” says Caity Kennedy, one of the members of the Meow Wolf collective. “We make things you can’t buy, that you can’t really document.”

The group decided to become more ambitious, and raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to build an installation at the Center for Contemporary Arts which was “a 73-foot, dimension-hopping, time-transcending galleon called the Due Return.” People could wander around the ship and read 20,000 words in a logbook detailing the ship’s fantastic adventures.

Here Meow Wolf made a decisive move. They said if people liked the Due Return installation, they could pay a $10 donation. This netted the group $125,000 and showed there was an alternative to patronage funding their art. “The Due Return was a light-bulb moment,” says Meow Wolf member Corvas Brinkenhoff. “We saw there was a business model here.”

In 2014, two members of Meow Wolf attended a business incubator conference in Albuquerque and learned how to create a business plan. They entered a contest for start-ups and won a $25,000 prize. Part of the money went on a trip to Disneyland, where they spent the day looking at Disney’s expertise in managing crowds.

Their next step was to create something bigger, and Meow Wolf saw an abandoned bowling alley that they could use for a 20,000 square foot installation they called the House of Eternal Return. Here they persuaded fantasy author George R.R. Martin, who lives in Santa Fe, to invest $3 million to buy the bowling alley. Other investors pitched in, and Meow Wolf had 135 people working very long days to complete the installation, which opened in March 2016. The house proved immensely popular, and Meow Wolf found itself a leader in “immersive experiences.”

In 1998, B. Joseph Pine II and Joseph H. Gilmore, in an influential article in the Harvard Business Review, coined the notion of “the experience economy.” They were the first to argue that many people today, rather than wanting more stuff, wanted to collect experiences, and places that offered interesting experiences would have a competitive edge.

Malls are dying because the experience of going to a mall, buying stuff, and eating in a food court isn’t interesting anymore. So Meow Wolf has attracted investors, including tech tycoon Stewart Alsop II, and made deals with malls to showcase their family-friendly art. Their members are trying to reconcile their lives as artists with understanding such business terms as “value engineering.”

The controversy over the gifts of the Sackler family shows that the traditional method of art patronage is broken. But the success of Meow Wolf provides another path for artists:  instead of relying on patrons, artists can, with hard work and diligence, become successful entrepreneurs.

Martin Morse Wooster

Wooster is a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (Capital…
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