ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a place in Santa Fe, N.M., called the House of Eternal Return. From the outside, it looks like an old bowling alley, which it actually used to be. Inside - well, here's a couple of visitors trying to describe it in a promotional video.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Maybe if I were the original Alice In Wonderland and fell through the rabbit hole, maybe that would be something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's like a Salvador Dali painting.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like a really trippy video game in real life.
SHAPIRO: The House of Eternal Return is a massive interactive art installation put together by a group of artists called Meow Wolf. Visitors can spend hours climbing through mysterious portals into imagined worlds. The attraction has been open for about two years, and it's been a huge success. More than a million people have visited. Meow Wolf has earned millions of dollars. And now the collective is building two more installations in Denver and Las Vegas. Vince Kadlubek is the CEO of Meow Wolf.
VINCE KADLUBEK: A couple years ago while we're building it, I would have said that Meow Wolf's a creative production company that builds immersive installations. And what that's evolved into for us is that we're a storytelling company.
SHAPIRO: In terms of the way that Meow Wolf has evolved, I think the word company is almost more important than the word storytelling because you've always been storytellers, but you haven't always been a company.
KADLUBEK: (Laughter) Totally. Yeah. We're like a story - we're a storytelling factory now cranking it out.
SHAPIRO: Vince Kadlubek talked to us between meetings with investors. Even that idea, investors, made him laugh. A new documentary called "Meow Wolf: Origin Story" narrates the strange tenure evolution of this arts collective. Kadlubek and I had a conversation about the balance between art and commerce, what it means to be creative and be a businessman. I began by asking him to tell us about what it was like at the beginning when he and his friends were outsiders in Santa Fe trying and failing to break into the gallery scene.
KADLUBEK: And so we basically just, like, stopped waiting for the invitation, and just created our own space, you know? We said, OK, we're just going to, like, rent out a room. We're all going to pitch in, and there's going to be no hierarchy. It's going to be all, like, anything goes, open door collective.
SHAPIRO: Embrace the anarchy.
KADLUBEK: Embrace the anarchy. Just, like, whatever happens, happens.
SHAPIRO: I just introduced you as CEO.
KADLUBEK: Right, totally.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) As somebody who started as part of an anarchist collective of performers and creators, did you ever think you would have the title CEO on your business card?
KADLUBEK: No, I absolutely did not. I mean, you know, I thought maybe executive director of a nonprofit organization. I was so anti-business and anti, like, for-profit. It just - I didn't understand the world of business, you know. I thought it was this very fixed thing. And so we were - we rejected business very outwardly. And so, no, I never would have thought that CEO would be my title.
SHAPIRO: People debated whether it was appropriate to make money, whether it was appropriate to pay each other...
KADLUBEK: Oh, my gosh.
SHAPIRO: ...Whether it was going to sort of, like, spoil and pervert the intention.
KADLUBEK: We had a show about three years into our existence as a collective that we, for the first time, actually requested a donation. Even that was a fight. I had to, like, fight, like, tooth and nail. I was like, you guys, we have worked for eight months on this show, and we've poured our blood, sweat and tears into this. Like, we can suggest a donation. It's fine. And we ended up making $150,000 off of that show. And it - that money nearly threw the entire thing into, like, complete turmoil. It practically did. It was seriously considered to put all the money into a pile and burn it. Like, that was, like, legitimately one of the concepts that was gaining traction at the time because people were so afraid of it.
SHAPIRO: Before Meow Wolf made it big and got money and got legitimate, you were this anarchist collective creating very successful installations for various periods of time trying at one point to make what is now your marquee attraction, the House of Eternal Return. And you were basically about to go broke when one of the most famous authors alive today stepped in.
KADLUBEK: (Laughter) Yeah. It's like so absurd. Yeah, I knew - so George R.R. Martin, the author of "Game Of Thrones," he lives in Santa Fe, N.M. And he had hired me to be his marketing director for a movie theater that he owns in Santa Fe, like a little art house movie theater that he owns.
SHAPIRO: So this is how you were making money when you were doing the anarchist art collective on the side.
KADLUBEK: Yes. Basically, we came across a building, 33,000-square-foot old bowling alley that had sat derelict for seven years. And it was a million-dollar building and needed a couple million dollars of renovations in order to bring it up to code. I was like, who do I bring this opportunity to? And George was at the top of that list.
SHAPIRO: And then you quoted a figure to him that ended up getting higher and higher and higher and higher.
KADLUBEK: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh. Yeah. We at first thought that the building would take about $300,000 to renovate it. And George was like, yeah, OK, we can do that. And about a month later, we got the real number back, and it was, like, $1.5 million or something like that. And he just, like - I remember the moment sitting in that room with him. He looked at that number, and he just, like - he didn't speak for a good two minutes straight. And we just sat in silence in this room with George. I was sitting there just being like, please, George. Like, you know, I knew that if this passed, if George had said, no, sorry, too expensive, we probably would have just gone on with our lives and left Meow Wolf behind, you know?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You were so close to walking away. What advice do you have for people today, you know, barely making the rent on a warehouse where they're trying to make art that those people may be on the brink of walking away and not have a world-famous successful author to write them a check for more than a million dollars?
KADLUBEK: Yeah. And I think it's important to note, like, he bought a building, he renovated it, he owns the building, he's our landlord, you know. Like, George R.R. Martin is my landlord, you know. But what we did is that we oriented ourselves towards business. And I've gotten a lot of flak for this, like, in the last couple months. But saying, like, yo, embrace capitalism, you need money. Your idea that you create with your art should be able to make money. And you should be valuing yourself enough to allow for money to come in. And then at the same time, if and when you do make money, don't follow the same rules of capitalism. Be different. Treat your workforce differently. Treat your profits differently. And so it's...
SHAPIRO: Give me an example.
KADLUBEK: We put $500,000 into a fund over the last two years called the DIY Fund. There are these underground, warehouse, punk, DIY communities in almost every city, and they are incredible environments for thinking outside the box. And they don't look the way a venue needs to look in order to get Andy Warhol Foundation funding or to get, you know, Endowment for the Arts funding. They don't look clean enough. And they're probably not even a 501(c)(3) to begin with. They're just a group of people in a warehouse. And so we had - we stepped up, and we said we're going to put $500,000 towards supporting these spaces around the country. And we got about 200 applications. We ended up funding about 80 different spaces in almost every state.
SHAPIRO: Vince Kadlubek, thank you so much for talking with us today.
KADLUBEK: Thank you, really appreciate it.
SHAPIRO: Vince Kadlubek is the CEO and one of the co-creators of Meow Wolf. The documentary "Meow Wolf: Origin Story" is in theaters for one night only November 29.
(SOUNDBITE OF MI'S "FOREST DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.