After one of Meow Wolf’s founders died suddenly at the age of 37, employees of the artist collective mourned by creating a memorial archway made of steel and wood.
“They metaphorically walked through it, as if transformed by this moment in time,” says Julie Heinrich, Meow Wolf chief of staff and executive director of the company’s new foundation. “They painted it, they built it and then they burned it, with a ceremony as well.”
“That’s what I mean about art being a beautiful language when there are no words.”
Heinrich joins the Santa Fe-based arts company during a time of exploding growth. It opened locations in Denver and Las Vegas, Nevada, last year, and recently announced it was opening two permanent exhibitions in Texas.
Heinrich was a consultant to Meow Wolf on the planning of its new fundraising foundation for about a year, and then was named to head the operation in April.
The timing was perfect; she was longing to “grow the next stage of my career,” and she was longing to return to New Mexico.
The Colorado native had been living in Washington, D.C. — she is married to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich — and working as a senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, a communications, marketing and consulting firm. Heinrich believes in Meow Wolf and the power of art to “bring people together” and to find solutions to global issues, as well tending to the smaller, more personal ones, such as grieving a lost colleague.
You could say that Heinrich has her own artistic talents. She has played clarinet, guitar, piano, xylophone and has now turned her attention to the ukulele. She also dances and sings, but adds, “I do not perform.”
There is, though, a bit of performance art in Heinrich’s background. She was once an elf at Santa’s Workshop at the foot of Pike’s Peak in Colorado.
“The reason why that’s funny is because I was 6-foot tall at the time, when I was 17,” she says. “I served ice cream all day long, including bubble gum ice cream. It was blue, and it had gumballs in it. It was the worst.”
What are your plans for the Meow Wolf foundation?
“First and foremost, we’ll be seeking partnerships, looking for grantees in the states where we’re doing business. We will expand giving there. The Meow Wolf brand has captured so much imagination and interest from others, that I’m also receiving inquiries from these other large, global foundations who want to partner with us. I’m not sure where that’s going to lead yet, but it’s an exciting conversation to be having. We will focus on arts and culture, looking at where it intersects with environment, education, equity or some combination of those areas. We’re exploring the healing capacity of art and how we can build creative economies. We are at such an interesting time in the company’s growth, and I’m blissfully happy to be a part of it.”
Why did you leave Washington, D.C., for New Mexico?
“Our kids were still young when he (husband) was elected to the U.S. Senate, so we decided it made sense to move there. Otherwise, he was going to miss out on their childhood. And so we put the kids in school out there. I worked at a global communications, marketing and consulting firm in Washington, D.C. But New Mexico is and always will be home. We’ve always had a house here (Albuquerque). My older son and I came home at the beginning of the pandemic, which I think encouraged many of us to rethink our lives and analyze what made us happy. We thought, ‘Maybe we’ll stay a couple of months,’ but then we just never returned to D.C. He decided he wanted to go to UNM.”
Was there a moment when the decision crystalized for you?
“It was a night of the full moon, and we went out to Ojito (Wilderness Area), to a spot where there are just beautiful petroglyphs nearby and then you have the sandstone formations at night, which look kind of strange and other-worldly and eerie. And I saw that full moon and I thought, ‘Ah. I don’t think I’m leaving.'”
What do you do in your free time?
“I love music and dance. I would say that’s how I not only express my creativity — that has historically been where I find my healing and personal therapy.”
What professional mistakes have you made and what did you learn?
“I am sure I have made numerous mistakes, as we all have, over the course of my career. I would say early, maybe in my 20s, I maybe was too naive and too critical of others and hurt someone’s feelings. I learned from that experience that I would choose a more diplomatic path in the future. It impacted me enough to know I didn’t want to do that again.”
What are your pet peeves?
“My pet peeves are probably shared by most parents of teenagers. The dishes don’t get done unless I ask. The backyard, the mess from the dog, does not get picked up unless I ask. The normal pet peeves of parenting.”
What do you think has made you successful?
“The capacity to be a strong listener. I’d like to think that my dad gave me a strong sense of humor. I don’t think I’m necessarily funny, but I love to laugh. My mom shared that sense of attention to detail. And she’s also incredibly optimistic. I start from that spot, of seeing the best in people.”
Has it been difficult to establish a career and reputation in your own right, when your husband is a U.S. senator?
“I actually had a politically focused career before my husband did — a brief window of time when he was Julie’s husband instead of me being his wife. In the workplace, I don’t tend to bring him up unless I have a reason to do so, because I want people to know me first and know the ways that I contribute. I think inevitably they figure it out, but I try to bring my authentic self to work. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a different person from the one I bring to the campaign trail. I think like most busy people you just do the best you can to balance the responsibilities between work and between officialdom and campaign events and just try to serve as many people as possible with an open heart.”
THE BASICS: Julie Heinrich, 50, born in Boise, Idaho, raised in Woodland Park, Colorado; married to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich since 1998; two sons, Carter, 19, and Micah, 15; one dog, Ella, and one cat, Opal; bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, 1993, and various technical certifications.
POSITIONS: Meow Wolf chief of staff and executive director of the Meow Wolf Foundation, since April 2022; senior vice president and vice president, Weber Shandwick, 2014-2022; head of digital media and project management, Mid-Region Council of Governments, 2006-2013; digital media director, city of Albuquerque, 2000-2006; chief communications officer and deputy communications officer, under then-Mayor Jim Baca, 1997-2000.
OTHER: Past board member of AMP Concerts, Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum, La Montañita Co-op and Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club; “persistent” political campaign volunteer since 2003.