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Meow Wolf a howling success

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Mahela Sanguinetti, from Virginia, take a picture at Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe. The innovative art installation is wowing hoards of visitors. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” futuristic art exhibit in Santa Fe is wooing and wowing hoards of visitors.

The interactive exhibition, which opened in March 2016, attracted 400,000 visitors in its first full year of operations, generating $6 million in revenue, said Meow Wolf co-founder and CEO Vince Kadlubek. Gift shop sales of Meow Wolf-related art generated another $800,000.

“The past two weeks have produced our biggest earnings yet,” Kadlubek told Leadership New Mexico on March 24. “We earned $35,000 from ticket sales each day last week and this week, and $50,000 a day on Saturdays and Sundays.”

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That’s a resounding success for a homegrown artists’ collaborative that launched nine years ago with 12 members. Today, the venture employs 130 people full time in Santa Fe, including 75 at the House of Eternal Return and 55 others at the exhibit’s parent firm, Meow Wolf Inc.

It’s particularly impressive given Meow Wolf’s lean marketing efforts through online advertising and social media, although backing from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has helped. Martin invested about $3 million to buy and renovate the old Silva Lanes bowling alley in Santa Fe, a 22,000-square-foot facility where the House of Eternal Return is now located.

“He’s our landlord,” Kadlubek said. “We’ve leveraged his name in the national and international press.”

But the exhibit itself is drawing broad attention, given the unique, immersive experience it offers visitors. Children and adults spend hours wondering through the two-story fantasy house, which offers hands-on 21st Century experimental art. Visitors climb through a maze of tunnels and portals that lead to rooms filled with imaginary worlds and dimensions, creating an Alice-in-Wonderland experience.

Given the concept’s broad appeal, Meow Wolf is now planning an aggressive expansion into other markets, beginning with Austin, Texas. The group is looking to acquire a building there for a permanent exhibit.

Meow Wolf hopes to attract up to 1.5 million visitors a year at the Austin site, which would open in three to five years. Once operating, it would employ about 300 people in Texas, and 150 artists and support personnel in New Mexico.

The group will move into a new, 50,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility this year in Santa Fe, where the collective will produce all the art and materials needed for future expansions. That includes a plan for traveling exhibits in markets targeted for temporary shows.

As Meow Wolf grows, it could have a huge impact on the local economy. A new report the state Economic Development Department released this month projects 440 direct and indirect jobs over the next 10 years, with $257 million in wages and $358 million in total economic impact.

To build the business, Kadlubek and other Meow Wolf founders participated in the Albuquerque-based Creative Startups business accelerator in 2014. Creative Startups co-founder Alice Loy said Meow Wolf represents the potential such ventures can offer.

“Meow Wolf is connecting people to transformative experiences through art, exploration and discovery in ways the world hasn’t seen before,” Loy said. “It’s one of New Mexico’s best startup stories.”

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