Just Do A Meow Wolf

Photo of Meow Wolf Las Vegas by Kate Russell, taken from this article

Simon Arcus, chief executive of Wellington Chamber and Business Central, thinks the city could do with some new attractions, such as the previously pitched World of WearableArt (WOW) museum or the interactive and immersible creative installations of Meow Wolf, a Sante Fe arts collective.

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This paragraph deep into a newspaper article about Wellington’s limited offer to tourists caught my eye, or more correctly, it made both my eyes roll right back into my head while I laughed incredulously. The city’s big business guy throwing down Meow Wolf as a new attraction possibility, even as an aspirational example of original thinking (or however you might generously frame it), lands with a massive clang, the clang of failing to really understand what you’re talking about.

Short version: Arts is hard, business guy.

Meow Wolf is an arts project (originally a collective, they incorporated somewhere in the last decade-half) that specialises in huge, immersive experiences featuring the work of large numbers of artists. Based in Santa Fe, they have also opened permanent exhibition locations in several other US cities. The vibe is like Disneyland meets Philip K. Dick, at least that’s as I understand it from far away, i haven’t been lucky enough to visit a Meow Wolf. They do cool stuff.

Wellington, of course, has a bunch of stuff that directly overlaps with what Meow Wolf do: we have lots of artists here. We have a busy games/tech sector. We have a huge engine for creating fantastic worlds in the Wētā studio system. We have smart creative people. Can’t you just see a Meow Wolf-type thing working in Wellington? I can! It seems to fit right in!

Here’s why the idea clangs: to get a Meow Wolf you need a lot more on your side than ambition.

Most obviously, a Wellington Meow Wolf has a size problem. It has to be big, not just to copy what worked overseas, but because if you’re doing an immersive attraction, it needs to have some breadth to it, or folks are going to wander through in ten minutes. And it also needs some depth to it, or it isn’t delivering on the ‘immersive’ side. So you’re right away looking at a large (not huge, but large) installation, and the investment needed to fit it out to a high standard and keep it refreshed and engagement-ready. Embedding the work of artists, and paying them properly, too. None of this is cheap but that’s fine because we’re going to get an audience of cruise ship passengers and return visit locals and out of towners and…

Not so fast. Scale is the devil for immersive; the economies of scale don’t kick in like they do on other projects. Even when you don’t have performers, as is normal for the Meow Wolf model, you still need to hand-feed every experience to a certain extent, and the more people you include, the more uncertainties dilute the reliability of the experience and make it impossible to actually do what you want to do.

A local Meow Wolf is devilishly hard. We’d need some big installation spaces, and a lot of customers willing to pay significantly to offset the rents and ongoing labour involved, as well as covering off the heavy investment of setup costs. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.

But this is actually the wrong end of the conversation. Because all this assumes that you are doing a Meow Wolf by taking an overseas success story and just copying it here.

The truth is, you don’t get a Meow Wolf that works without growing it at home. It’s artwork, and artwork has to cook from local ingredients or it’s going to leave a bad taste.

And here’s where the real clang comes from, for me. Because to get a Meow Wolf, you need to cultivate and support a community of artists over many years. You need a city that gives them space to live affordably, and allows them to mix and develop. You need to put money, real money, on the table for artists to try things and explore and do stuff. A lot of those things will fail as commercial attractions.

Put it this way: the road to a local Meow Wolf is through dozens of failed local Meow Wolfs.

So my eyes rolled back when I read Mr. Business Guy tossing out Meow Wolf as a thing we would love to have. Because where is the support for artists in this city? Where are the business leaders advocating for the kinds of conditions that would allow artists to survive? Where are the businesses putting money for emerging artists to make the city more interesting? Where are the business notables lobbying local and central government for the kind of support that would make art viable here? Where are the rich business folk putting money on the table for art collectives to try weird stuff?

It’s easy to say we should have a nice thing. Harder to recognize that the nice thing is the output of years of effort and risk and support. Even harder to say “if we want Wellington to be a good destination we need to invest in our artists”. Ultimate difficulty level to say all that and add “And I’m demanding our government make changes that would help this situation.”

Because that’s it, right? Unless you engage with the politics, it’s all just smoke, You want a better Wellington, business guy, well the National government you love so much isn’t gonna get you there. Be honest about it.

(I’ve been involved in a couple of attempts to develop some kind of immersive something for Wellington. Both of them ran out of steam early on because the difficulties are substantial. But I do think – no, I feel – there’s going to be some clever hack to circumvent all those logistical limits and set something up that could work here in a sustainable way. I haven’t found it yet myself, but, you know, I’m thinking.)

2 thoughts on “Just Do A Meow Wolf”

  1. “Where is the support for artists in this city?”

    Indeed. The two people I know personally who would have put something like this together have left Wellington because housing and studio space became too expensive.

  2. Wellington is absolutely brutal right now. It makes me feel like a sad old man that i keep thinking “when I was young this place was brilliant”. But it’s true.

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