“It’s like going through the Floo Network in Harry Potter!”
On Wednesday night, just before her 13th birthday, Lily Harrell was practically dancing with excitement after ducking through a Victorian home’s fireplace and emerging in a different world. The passage reminded her of a wizard-y means of transport used in J.K. Rowling’s popular book series.
Just one of many to attend a preview night for Meow Wolf’s Arts Complex and immersive arts experience, The House of Eternal Return, she praised the exhibition’s attention to detail and use of repeated references before quickly slipping away in search of new discoveries.
The doors open to the public this weekend for the long-awaited promise of “something different” in a former bowling alley that now houses crafted dinosaur bones that you can play like a xylophone, an upturned bus, a two-story home that appears as if its residents had just recently walked away, tree houses, and much, much more.
Author and kid-at-heart George R.R. Martin, whose purchase of the building paved way for the artist collective’s expansive and permanent project, said Wednesday night, “I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere.” He told the Journal his interest was captured by the creativity, fantasy and adventure of the proposal.
But anything different comes with a risk, he acknowledged.
“Will people accept ‘different’? Will they like ‘different’?” he wondered.
They at least seem interested in checking it out. Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek said at the beginning of the week that 2,000 tickets had already been sold for this opening weekend. The exhibition can hold 500 at a time; the entire building, which includes a maker’s space, gift shop, education area and more, has a capacity of 1,100.
As for Martin, he said the completed project has met his expectations.
“I think kids will love it!” he added.
Judging by reactions at the preview, his prediction is a good one.
“I love it!” said 5-year-old Noah Berkeley. “It’s so awesome!”
Musician and dad David Berkeley added, “He’s amazed by every nook and cranny. He can go in every direction and find something he’s attracted to.”
Todd Lovato, also a Santa Fe musician, said his 18-month-old son Calvin was also entranced by House of Eternal Return.
“Probably, we’ll have to come here a dozen times before we get to the bottom of this,” he said of the many tucked-away spots to explore. With the January closure of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, he added, it helps fill the void of toddler entertainment.
The tweens and teens exclaimed in delight at new discoveries, often wearing grins wobbling between giddy and euphoric. Many gravitated to a room filled with video arcade games, but Saul Shukman, who turns 16 today, and Cypress Hayunga, 16, were encountered coming out of a narrow corridor whose fabric sides burst out with geometric designs at the touch of their hands.
Saul pronounced the exhibition “like incredible” and Cypress dubbed it “insane.”
“No matter how far you go around,” Cypress said, “you still find stuff that’s new.”
With all the hidden doors and passageways, Saul said, “it’s like a little kid’s best dream.”
The adults didn’t seem to enjoy it any less, but wore expressions from studious to bemused as they studied many of the details.
“Meow Wolf sits at the intersection of some of our biggest community goals. Growing Santa Fe younger, increasing access to our incredible artistic and cultural legacy, creating jobs and diversifying our economy,” said Mayor Javier Gonzales in a written statement. “We’ve already seen results in job creation and even new patents, so we are optimistic that this will become a fixture in local art and entertainment for years to come.”
Sean Di Ianni, chief operating officer for Meow Wolf, said Wednesday night that he could never have believed he was about to open a 20,000-square-foot exhibition.
“It feels totally surreal,” he said.
Waiting for a big blank check
But while most people will get their first glimpse of the House of Eternal Return this weekend, the insiders have already been thinking: What next?
Will the concept expressed as an implosion of space and time, one that offers exploration and interaction with sound and lights as visitors move and touch various objects, be transplantable to another location?
“What I am afraid of is that our most valuable assets could easily find other work and we could lose our team if there is not another creative project soon after this,” said Kadlubek.
After all, once the doors open and the creation of the space is finished, Meow Wolf staff will plummet from over 100 jobs to about 30 to 40 people who will keep the space running, he said. And they won’t be the artists.
He doesn’t want to lose the creative team that came up with ideas as big as Portals Bermuda, “your gateway to the multiverse,” and as tiny as such details as a book by Albert Camus, “The Possessed,” sitting on a bedside table in the Victorian home and a placemat reading, “Beyond Here There Be Dragons.” Not to mention the technical expertise that yielded light, color and sound responses to visitor actions.
Kadlubek said he has been talking to people from other cities who are interested in the project and have visited it or plan to come during the opening weekend.
“Hopefully, the next one will be one big blank check,” he said of his funding hopes, adding that he has been in contact with some people who might be able to provide just that. Of course, he wasn’t naming any names or places, but said he would like to begin a new project “as soon as possible and start on designs” to keep people employed.
And speaking of that blank check, he’d like a lot more money to work with.
“We calculate it cost $125 per square foot to build this project. It was a $2.7 million project – it should have been built at $10-$12 million,” he said. “People were not getting paid what they should be.”
If you go
WHAT: Meow Wolf Arts Complex and House of Eternal Return
WHEN: Opening weekend, 2 p.m.-midnight today; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: 1352 Rufina Circle
HOW MUCH: $15-$25 at meowwolf.com
SPECIAL EVENTS: Live entertainment through the weekend; see meowwolf.com for schedules
After this weekend, regular opening hours will be 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays (open later Fridays and Saturdays) and admission will be $10-$18, with price breaks for children under 12 and New Mexico residents, and variable pricing for special events.