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Meow Wolf continues ‘polishing the gem’

SANTA FE, N.M. — Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” has come a long way since its March 2016 debut, says chief business development officer Damian Taggart.

“When we first opened, we were putting paint on two minutes before the opening gala,” Taggart recalled. “And it wasn’t until the first year we did upgrades (that) those thoughts continued to be completed.”

For the second time since opening, the “House of Eternal Return” – a surreal set of rooms inhabited by a fictional family whose strange story is hidden in the details – closed its doors for about two weeks of renovations and creation of new spaces.

“It has more detail and feels like more mature of a product,” Taggart said.

Last year, around this time, the new projects included the gift shop’s expansion and creating an ice machine that acts as a portal to a mirror-filled room. CEO Vince Kadlubek said the Santa Fe location – Meow Wolf is famously expanding with big, new ventures in Denver and Las Vegas, Nev. – will likely continue the annual renovations in an effort to keep the experience exciting, particularly for repeat visitors.

This year, the exhibition closed Jan. 29-Feb. 12. Upgrades ranged from two new rooms to explore and a new cafe/bar, as well as smaller-scale improvements that Kadlubek described as “polishing the gem.”

Those included several new large art pieces, two new consoles in the arcade room and about five additional murals throughout the building, including one made with nonprofit ARTSmart and 10 Milagro Middle School students. The changes were in addition to repainting and refreshing already existing spaces.

“The exhibition needed TLC,” said project manager Gio Gonzales, citing what he said were record attendance numbers last summer. Spokesperson John Feins was unsure about summer-specific attendance, but said 2017 saw 500,000 visitors, with each month outdoing 2016 figures.

With the out-of-state sites on the horizon, Kadlubek said this year’s process was all about giving the original Santa Fe branch “autonomy.” He and many other Meow Wolf officials who helped create the “House of Eternal Return” were not as hands-on with the new changes.

Kadlubek described the additions as a chance for site-specific employees to work with artists and handle projects on their own, just like Meow Wolf folks at the Las Vegas and Denver locations will have to do. “The goal is, two years from now, Denver and Vegas will be able to look at this and say, ‘This is really how it’s done’ and then model off of this model,” he said.

‘Shareable’ spaces

Los Angeles artist Scott Hove stands in the new “Cake Room” he designed at Meow Wolf. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Replacing the former Bug Room at the “House of Eternal Return” is Scott Hove’s “Cake Room.” The LA-based artist is famous for his “Cakeland” art installations, which include large sculptures of brightly-colored, artificial cakes.

His past cake-inspired creations can have a dark side, with fake guns or fanged creatures coming out of the tasty-looking art. Similar themes continue with “Cake Room.” Connected to his hexagonal “infinity chamber” full of flowers and cake sculptures – mirrors make the garden-like scene seem like it continues on forever – is a “spooky” Victorian hallway.

In a glass display built into the wall, there’s a human heart replica also surrounded by mirrors. The space also features a blizzard chamber, with small Styrofoam snowballs that continually blow around.

“Light and dark is a theme I work with a lot,” Hove said of the inspiration for the room. “It just fit really well: What I do and what they do.”

Hove first visited the “House of Eternal Return” a year and a half ago during a trip to Santa Fe to deliver a sculpture. The next day, he said he contacted Meow Wolf in hopes of working with them. Incidentally, they were already fans of his work.

Now, Hove says he’s slated to work on the Denver expansion, as well.

While Hove’s space replaced an original room, the exhibition’s latest portal, “Timeworm,” is a never-before-used area. The dark walkway illuminated by multi-colored lights is connected by a door to the House’s teenage bedroom and a moveable bookcase in the parents’ room. Kadlubek, who saw the portal for the first time the day of the re-opening, said he felt it was “bending time and space.”

“When we were first doing the exhibition, ‘Timeworm’ was something we were going to do in that space, but it’s something we cut because we didn’t have enough time or money left,” he said.

Gonzales said the “Timeworm” project led by Meow Wolf artist Just Di Ianni has been in development off-site since last year. It contributes to Meow Wolf’s goal of shocking and surprising visitors, he said, but it will also add to the House’s existing, mysterious storyline, which can emerge through repeated visits, and rummaging through drawers and nooks and crannies.

“For people who follow the narrative, portals are really big key to it,” said Gonzales. Other portals include the House’s refrigerator and dryer.

How “Timeworm” will play into to the mystery narrative is still being decided, he said.

The same goes for the new “Light Boxes” installation on the second floor. The work, conceptualized by local artist Betsy Braly, and designed by Antonio Garcia and William Coburn of Albuquerque, features a wall of dozens of wooden and acrylic boxes with centers that change colors when tapped. If certain boxes are hit in the right order, a code to open a nearby safe is revealed. The safe holds clues for visitors solving the mystery.

“The idea was to paint with it,” Garcia said, referring to how visitors can create their own designs with the different colors, “and then the code adds another interesting part to it.”

Snacks meet sci-fi

In the new cafe and bar, named Float, menu items like margaritas and absinthe topped with cotton candy, and espresso lined with edible glitter were designed to complement the Meow Wolf experience and Float’s own sci-fi aesthetic, says cafe manager Sandra Vacca.

Back in November, the City Council approved Meow Wolf’s full liquor license application. The plan was to replace Duel Brewing, which had been serving beer and wine and Meow Wolf’s limited pre-packaged snack options. The full liquor license allows Meow Wolf staff to sell alcohol in the evening and on weekends, as well as to serve coffee, Italian sodas and food full time.

Float is obviously a new revenue stream for Meow Wolf, but Kadlubek said officials are more interested in what it will tell them about the type of social engagement spot that visitors want.

“People used to hang out here, but it was kind of awkward,” he said. “It was this weird cafeteria feel of tired parents sitting around. We knew we wanted to give a space that was active and fun.”

Manager Sandra Vacca serves a Purple Passion Italian soda at Float, the new cafe/bar at Meow Wolf. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Vacca said she and bar manager Evan Schultz made up all of Float’s “funky” drink options. The coffee menu includes “Space Owl Jelly” espresso, with white chocolate, frosted mint and blueberry flavors, and a Chile Isotope cocoa with hints of chili and cinnamon. Both of these options, like many on the menu, come with “shimmer,” or edible glitter.

The cocktails, served in addition to wine and local beer on tap, are also Meow Wolf-inspired, with titles like “Step into the Fridge.” Vacca said visitors are so far giving thumbs-up to the “MeowGarita” topped with cotton candy. There’s also “Todos 7,” a gin concoction that changes colors.

Hanging above Float is one of the building’s new art installations, “Lumpy Charms.” Suspended by strings over the seating area, there are dozens of marshmallow-looking sculptures shaped like rainbows, hearts and flowers. Lead Meow Wolf artist Golda Blaise’s theme is also brought to life at the cafe, with real marshmallows being offered in some drinks.

Blaise said she wasn’t sure if her creation inspired the cafe or vice versa, adding all of the new ideas seemed to occur at once.

“That’s one of the beautiful parts of what we do here at Meow Wolf; being a collective and one artistic brain, in a sense,” she said. “It just fits.”

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