Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Meow Wolf’s Corvas Brinkerhoff talks art + business

“One of the most exciting things for us is to help launch new artists.”

Corvas Brinkerhoff

Meow Wolf presents an inspiring example of what’s possible today in terms of harnessing art, technology and business to create new guest experiences, and bring art and creativity into people’s lives.

The arts and entertainment company known as Meow Wolf creates and operates unique, immersive visitor experiences, described by the Las Vegas Weekly as “wonderfully weird movies you can walk through.” In February 2021, Meow Wolf unveiled Omega Mart at Area15 in Las Vegas to an enthusiastic reception. Omega Mart riffs on a supermarket theme to draw people into its quirky spaces and installations. [See “Meow Wolf gives new meaning to ‘art market’”].

Omega Mart is the second Meow Wolf venue – the company burst onto an astonished world in 2016 with The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The House was honored by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) in 2017 with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in the category of Connected Immersion.

Meow Wolf begins with art and ends there, too – having made a success of its vision to establish a sustainable model that supports artists and invites people to experience their art in immersive settings. It’s a remarkably un-branded guest experience – of course, Meow Wolf is a brand itself now – but these projects retain the quality and reality of original art, right alongside the business savvy, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. InPark editor Judith Rubin spoke to Corvas Brinkerhoff, Meow Wolf Las Vegas Executive Creative Director, about the leadership that makes it possible to integrate them successfully.

How do you retain the core values of the art collective front and center as Meow Wolf grows and thrives? 

That is our central theme – how to hold onto that spirit that has always been there and taken myriad forms over the years, how to hold onto that magic. As we grow, the pressures to make things more reliable and efficient also grow, and we have to try harder to hold onto that.

It comes down to the authenticity of the creative practice. How do you give the artists room to create work that’s authentic to them as artists? They must be able to create work that is authentic to them – work that they feel compelled to create. That is why they became artists. If you don’t give them the opportunity to do that, to be true to themselves, we are putting the essence of what we do at risk. Our process must be one that values artists and their vision.

It’s all about giving artists the opportunity to create something they feel passionate about creating – something that is true to them, not just good for their career, but that is important for them too. That’s what makes Meow Wolf so unique, and that’s how we stay true to that source, that spirit.

How do you select new artists to participate in creating a Meow Wolf experience?

One of the most exciting things for us is to help launch new artists. We value the ability to be a bridge – to unlock underknown and underrepresented talent in the world, to shed light on less-seen pockets of creative genius. In terms of selection, we’re looking for a great experience for our audience, and the best people to create that. So the important questions are: What are they capable of making, and how do they work and communicate? In terms of the work itself, does it connect with your heart or not? That’s what art is here for. The main thing is, are you creating something that is resonating with the audience?

There’s a persistent idea out there that artists are bad at business, or that artists lose purity if they engage in commercial activity. Has that been a roadblock for Meow Wolf?

It was a myth we had to bust. It holds a lot of people back.

Artists come in every kind of shape and package that you can imagine, and the idea that they can’t do linear structured thought processes is utterly false. When you take stock of the abilities of artists, they are off the charts in the ability to think linear and also connect with the intuitive part of themselves – and it’s in the balance of that that you find the most potent creative people. But still we have to fight against these prevalent misconceptions about artists and money.  

A cultural myth of that size, while being utterly false, has a tremendous amount of opportunity beneath it. It gives you a playing field all your own. That’s why we have such a viable business – we unlocked that to say, “This is wrong. Artists deserve to be supported. There is a massive audience that wants to experience these things and will pay to experience them – and in the process, we support all these artists.”

Construction on Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart
Tell us about the journey from opening The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, to Omega Mart in Las Vegas – with more to come. So far your expansion has been in the US Southwest.

We’re based in Santa Fe, and when we opened The House we realized that we could expand into other cities. We started closer to home, where we felt traction and connection to the community of artists there. That’s what led to Denver and Las Vegas, but in the not-too-distant future, we expect to have Meow Wolf exhibitions all over the world.

Opening The House was our bid to prove our theory that this model could work. It was very difficult to get that open, to get funding and resources we needed for such an audacious business model. We formed our initial business plan in 2011, and it took until 2016 to convince enough people to invest and believe in it. We needed someone to take a chance on us. We got incredibly lucky with George R.R. Martin. He was the first person to say, “Yeah, I’ll get behind this.” He bought the building and funded many of the renovations to it. We were able to move things forward from there, once he was on board. We are very pleased that it has turned out to be a good business model, not only sustainable but profitable.

Sean Di Ianni and Caity Kennedy of Meow Wolf accept the TEA Thea Award for The House of Eternal Return, at the 2017 Thea Awards Gala in Anaheim. They are flanked by TEA’s Patrick Gallegos and Tracy Klainer.
How did it affect things when Meow Wolf became a recognized part of the attractions industry?

There are three industries we overlap: themed entertainment, entertainment media, and the art world. We now have people from all of those industries helping us to understand how things are done in those industries and why. It enables us to be thoughtful about when we follow “the way things are done” vs doing it our own way. We don’t want to go around arbitrarily reinventing the wheel, when there’s an effective, established practice – only to reinvent the right wheel, as necessary.

For us, it has always been this kind of process – a process of adding structure to the inherent creative chaos of our culture. We started as a very loose-knit, egalitarian, bordering-on-anarchistic artists collective, and slowly added a little bit of structure at a time, inventing, asking “what is this organization?”

“The main thing is, are you creating something that is resonating with the audience?” — Corvas Brinkerhoff

Being able to bring in professional firms and consultants – who have mastery and skills we don’t already have – furthers that process of being able to understand how things are done elsewhere. The more we can focus on what only Meow Wolf can do in the world, the better we can be. We don’t want to dilute our creative practice. We are looking for partners in the world. There are all these amazing and talented people and companies who are good at things we want in our toolkit, which allows us to focus on what we do best – that’s our North Star. It’s a privilege and an honor to work with them, and important in helping us evolve as a company.

Prior to the House of Eternal Return receiving a TEA Thea Award, I had never heard of “themed entertainment” as such – I had no idea there was a formally defined industry or that we were part of it. We were just artists who happened to make really big stuff. The Thea Award turned out to be this really incredible honor, and the community has been a great resource for us. Among the dozens of contractors that contributed to Omega Mart are some prominent industry names – companies such as AOA and KHS&S, and former Disney creative executives such as Meow Wolf Co-CEO Ali Rubinstein.    

Tell us about the way Meow Wolf blends art and technology to immerse guests in storytelling.

This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I was Meow Wolf’s first CTO – I occupied that role for about three years and led a lot of the tech in the early years, during which time we applied technology to all kinds of immersive experiences, concerts, parties, theatrical productions and art exhibitions.

Technology gives us an incredible array of tools that are so powerful in creating these super-immersive experiences. It helps open up an infinite number of colors on our artists’ palettes – to help create a multi-hour, psycho-emotional experience. It is totally mind-blowing to see a project come fully online with all the playback, music, lighting design and other factors.

We are very interested in creating new ways of doing things. The storytelling side is a tremendous opportunity for innovation, and technology is a great toolbox to empower that development. For example, If we give a guest an RFID badge and they go through the experience and scan the badge at stations, we can deliver content to them based on where they are, who they are, and what they have done. That supports a level of sophistication in storytelling that hasn’t been done before when combined with these immersive art installations. We aren’t creating new technology, but applying it in a unique way to the experience – and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll be seeing, in Meow Wolf experiences, a very high level of integration with smartphones and AR and digital overlays. We will always be integrating new technology. The question is how to use it to serve experience design, in terms of what is meaningful for the guest.

How does Meow Wolf approach operations and merchandising?

We are operating our own venues and that is a really important part of the whole enterprise, that we feel is core to our business model. We want to create spaces where we have direct interaction with the audience and to have someone else operate our experiences would be handing over a significant piece of the guest experience. We’re looking at how to make operations more integrated into the creative process. In Las Vegas, we refer to our employees as creative operators. They have a level of creative agency – they are essentially performers and actors. They fulfill an operational role but also have identities they are creating, characters that guests can interact with in the experience. The people who inhabit these exhibitions and work in them every day have a huge amount of influence on the experience and the artwork, and that is something we have to understand and include in the creative process.

Training the staff involves a very rigorous process of immersing them in the art, how and why it was made, and the concepts behind it. As there are hundreds of pieces of art in one show, it’s very intensive. Then we teach them the narrative – the fictional backstory of these worlds we’re creating – which is also very complex and in-depth. We make a significant investment in the operations staff so they can represent the work. Over time, of course, we’ll make changes and upgrade the work. In Santa Fe, The House of Eternal Return opened five years ago, and every year we make changes. The operations staff are critical to that – they tell us where issues are to be addressed and share insight on what we should do.

Merchandise is also an important part of the model. We look for artists to create merchandise items – it is another opportunity to benefit artists, and the result is another, really cool kind of art gallery. As always, our primary focus is on creating artwork that is extraordinary and unlike anything else you can find in the world.

How is Omega Mart doing so far?

The response has been phenomenal, with tickets selling out and it looks likely to sell out through its first several months, hitting attendance projections in spite of the 50% capacity limit. The community of Las Vegas has embraced this work and I think they are proud to have it in their city. It generally feels like we really have a good shot at having created a must-do experience in Las Vegas. Our ultimate success in that city would be to have achieved something that cuts through the noise – that you absolutely have to do while you’re there – and in the process sparks a movement that helps redefine the city of Las Vegas as a hub for amazing, authentic, meaningful art. Vegas is full of brilliant artists, performers, and makers. The world needs to know that.

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, publicist, strategist, blogger, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She excels at writing about all aspects of design and technical design, production and project management. Areas of special interest include AV integration and show control, lighting design and acoustics, specialty cinema, digital video and world’s fairs. Judith has ties to numerous industry organizations. From 2005-2020 she ran communications, publications and social media for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA, and co-chair of the 2014 IMERSA Summit. She was publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association in the 1990s, now part of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) and has also contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Already making her mark as a magazine and book editor, Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. Launching as a freelancer in the mid 1990s she has contributed to dozens of publications and media outlets including Funworld, Lighting&Sound America, Sound & Communications, Urban Land, The Raconteur and The Planetarian. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute. She has lived in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, and now makes her home in Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts and theater community.

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