3 Takeaways from Meow Wolf Creator Vince Kadlubek at Denver Startup Week

On Monday, September 24, the founder of Meow Wolf, Vince Kadlubek, spoke to Denver Startup Week about his vision for Meow Wolf – now and for the future – as it establishes a second location in the Sun Valley neighborhood in Denver. Meow Wolf originated with a vision to create inspiring collaborative spaces for artists, brought to life by an arts and entertainment group in Santa Fe. As Meow Wolf grew, Kadlubek embraced his responsibility as a leader for the artistic community. At #DENStartupWeek, he shared the Meow Wolf story, details about the new location coming to Denver in 2020, and how artists and entrepreneurs can plug in to the new location.

Here are three takeaways from the panel:

Art needs to exist with business…

Kadlubek reminisced on Meow Wolf’s early days when they didn’t charge for tickets, opting instead for a donation jar for visitors. When, to everyone’s surprise, they made more than $100,000 in a year, they were shocked and…unsettled. They weren’t used to making money like that, figured they must have done something wrong, and the IRS would surely come after them. The predicament was so intimidating, they contemplated burning all the money (which they thankfully decided against). To Kadlubek, this was a clear indicator of the uneasy relationship artists can have with the business side of running a creative company.

Meow Wolff is a for-profit company, and Kadlubek said that there has been a stigma attached to this. Some consider it “selling out,” but he encourages artists to reject this idea. If an artist makes something valuable, they have to embrace the business. “Building a business can be a different type of creativity, one that requires multiple creative choices every day,” he said.

Kadlubek was inspired by the business model for the City Museum in St. Louis, a popular children’s museum that keeps attracting new attendees and return visits every year by creating an experience that visitors, both adults and children, loved and want to come back to enjoy again.

Here in Denver, he said they will keep the exhibit fresh by changing out half of the exhibit every year and adding a new digital layer, with “mixed reality” as the next creative opportunity they hope to embrace.

…But don’t put $ ahead of people

Though Kadlubek made a point to say that artists need to be smart about business in order to make a living, he also emphasized you can’t go too far in that direction. “It’s so easy to put money ahead of people,” he said.

Meow Wolf is widely admired because of their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility. Vince said this is important not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s what consumers want. They care about a company that cares. Following its success, Meow Wolf has given back more than $500,000 in its first two years to non-profits, DIY spaces and art projects.

Members in the audience asked how they navigate a fine line between spontaneity and structure that is necessary for an art company to be financially successful while staying true to the creative process. The answer, he says, isn’t clear and requires constant thought. “It’s important to always be searching for that sweet spot where you aren’t boxing your team with too much structure. Artists need space to be creative and push boundaries. However, some structure is needed to make sure the project will be successful and audiences attending the events will get what they want and be satisfied.”

A new artistic destination in Denver

When looking to expand to a new location, Kadlubek said they thought Denver would be a good choice because of the soaring art scene sparked by new galleries and events. However, deciding where in Denver was a decision that needed more consideration. When Meow Wolf first announced via Facebook their plans to open a location in Sun Valley, a user commented on the post asking, “What are you going to do for the people in Sun Valley?” He replied, “I don’t know, can you help?”

Since then, there have been ongoing discussions on how Meow Wolf can positively impact its new neighborhood and artists. Working directly with the community, Kadlubek wants to be mindful of the environment he’s entering, choosing to work with and collaborate with the Denver art community.

Recently, Meow Wolf released their Corporate Social Responsibility plan, which is broken into four major pillars: respect for the community, the artists, the environment, and an inclusive economy.

The “respect for the artists” pillar outlined Meow Wolf’s ultimate goal — to pay artists good wages and support the artists they can’t employ directly. There was also an unexpected aspect to this goal, one that isn’t surprising considering his dedication to responsibility: Meow Wolf’s Denver exhibition will have 40 percent of the design elements dedicated to Colorado-based artists.

Our team at NINE dot ARTS is excited to welcome Meow Wolf to Denver, and looks forward to the impact that the organization and artists will have on our community. Click here for the Open Call for Artists for the Denver location!