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Meow Wolf taking new role as business incubator

SANTA FE, N.M. — Nico Salazar always thought of himself as an artist, although he’s had to work in retail or in freelance website creation to make a living – until Meow Wolf offered him a full-time job more than a year ago on its “big project” that turned out to be the popular exhibit “The House of Eternal Return.”

Now, after decorating one of the exhibit’s rooms with his bold, black-and-white graphics in what he terms almost a mind-blowing degree of artistic freedom, the Santa Fe artist has been chosen to launch the arts group’s first business incubator project.

“They assembled a team for me,” he said with an air of disbelief in his good fortune, standing amid various prototypes of his designs applied to T-shirts, leggings, tote bags and more items of apparel or fabric. “That was amazing … . It’s very cool that they just believe in my work so much.”

Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek said this project is one of many ventures the company is eyeing for the future.

“We want to help launch other creative businesses,” he said. “We want to help an artist who has an idea. We have the supports to make it happen.” Such supports include business advice, legal help, fundraising, and even the ideas and resources from a network of other artists to help flesh out someone’s concept, he said.

“This is an opportunity to launch more creative businesses in Santa Fe and New Mexico,” he said. With a planned $100,000 total investment, Meow Wolf has become a co-owner of Salazar’s business, Future Fantasy Delight.

But, while Meow Wolf has provided a team to help him with issues such as business development, tax and legal matters, and other business needs, Salazar said he continues to have artistic freedom in the creation of the products. “They make sure everything is on the right track, moving in the right direction,” he said of his collaborators.

It’s pretty heady stuff for this 28-year-old, who graduated just two years ago from the Institute of American Indian Arts with his bachelor of fine arts degree.

“I have complete control of all designs,” he said. “That’s pretty big for an artist to just do what he wants.”

One of Nico Salazar’s designs has been converted into a sticker. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

One of Nico Salazar’s designs has been converted into a sticker. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

New locations

This project is just one of many Meow Wolf is looking at as it goes through a major transition over the next six months, according to Kadlubek.

From the entire Meow Wolf team operating “The House of Eternal Return,” a core creative team of about 100 members will be separated out to work on new projects full time, instead of “putting wristbands on people part of the time,” Kadlubek said. That would leave about 45 employees operating the Meow Wolf Arts Complex, he said.

The creative team, then, would concentrate on other projects, including the possibility of duplicating the success of “The House of Eternal Return” in other markets. Kadlubek said nothing is set in stone, but he’s had interest from people in Los Angeles; Las Vegas, Nev.; San Antonio, Texas; Seattle; and Philadelphia.

The idea would be to create an immersive art experience, similar to the one in Santa Fe, but with a different storyline, involving artists in those cities. Any such project would be looking at an opening date three years from now, he estimated.

Meow Wolf has had a lot to brag about in terms of success. From the opening of “The House of Eternal Return” in mid-March though mid-August, it has attracted some 250,000 people and generated gross revenues of more than $3 million, Kadlubek said. That has helped it pay off some of its debt faster than anticipated, including $100,000 that has been repaid from a $300,000 loan from Century Bank, he said, as well as other credit card debt.

It’s also working to build a $1.6 million cushion for what is expected to be the slow season as the tourist trade dwindles and kids return to school, he said. “We’ve been seeing 15,000 people a week in the high season,” Kadlubek said. “The gift shop generates $100,000 a month in sales and 80 percent of that goes to the artists (who produce the merchandise).”

The arts complex currently employs about 75 people, with the lowest pay set at $13.50 per hour, which he said he hopes to increase to $15 hourly – “a true living wage for people.”

This is an image from a trailer for a movie proposed by Meow Wolf based on the story behind its exhibit “The House of Eternal Return.” (Courtesy of Meow Wolf)

This is an image from a trailer for a movie proposed by Meow Wolf based on the story behind its exhibit “The House of Eternal Return.” (Courtesy of Meow Wolf)

Two other projects are in the works, both currently at the stage of searching for investors:

  • A feature film, with a screenplay by James Longmire and direction by Tristan Love, both local filmmakers, and starring Santa Fe actress Megan Burns, who portrays a lead character in the story told through the “Eternal Return” exhibit. The film would be a science fiction drama with a PG-13 rating, telling essentially the story upon which the exhibit is based. The people on the project already have created a trailer to take to potential producers and investors.
  • A video game based on “The House of Eternal Return” being created by Mindshare Labs, a local programming company, and Subliminal Gaming of Albuquerque. Each space within the exhibition will have its own level within the video game, as Piper searches for her son, Lex, who is lost in the multiverse. She is racing against agents of the Charter to get to him, Kadlubek said. The Charter, he added, tries to keep thoughts and people separated, while Piper’s family bloodline wants to free humanity from that segregation. He estimated this might be 18 months from completion.

More imminent is a planned shutdown of “The House of Eternal Return” for two weeks in January, allowing for an upgrade or replacement of portions of the exhibit, according to Kadlubek. “Then, we’ll relaunch it with new elements,” he said.

Nico Salazar poses in the room he designed in Meow Wolf's "House of Eternal Return" in Santa Fe on August 18. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Nico Salazar poses in the room he designed in Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” in Santa Fe on August 18. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Japanese influence

Salazar, meanwhile, is preparing for his business launch party on Sept. 24, featuring one of his favorite performing artists, Princess Nokia. A soft launch will come a little bit earlier with products set up in his booth at the AHA Festival of the Progressive Arts in the Santa Fe Railyard on Sept. 18, he said.

His designs are inspired by Japanese anime, which was incredibly popular in Hawaii, where he spent some years of his childhood while his father was stationed there with the Navy. With family roots in Pecos, he was born in Santa Fe and moved back here in 1997, when he entered fourth grade in Kearney Elementary School and then wound his way through De Vargas Middle School and Santa Fe High.

His designs for the new products might be based on a theme, such as all items from nature or all action figures, but others simply might be a collection of random objects. One design is all trilobites, a tribute to a grandfather who collected fossils and passed them down to him, Salazar said.

His art activities in the past have included what he calls “live art,” in which he would go to a bar or other gathering spot and create images as people watched, then sell the resulting artwork to the highest bidder. “Hopefully, I could go on tour one day and do live art like concerts,” he said.

While most of the products in development now focus on apparel with his designs, Salazar said he’d also think about branching out to coloring books and action figures, and he has prototypes for stickers and more. Currently, his work is all in black and white, but he intends to explore use of other colors down the line, he said.

“I want to make toys and stuffed animals, but clothes are the easiest to get done the quickest,” he said. Efforts are being made to keep all manufacturing in New Mexico, he added.

Noting that he has 12,000 Instagram followers, Salazar said, “I already have an existing audience … a fan base all over the world. I’m really excited for that.”