Meow Wolf, the Art Collective That Became a Multimillion-Dollar Symbol of the Booming Experience Economy, Just Laid Off More Than Half Its Staff

The popular Santa Fe art space was looking to expand across the country. Now, it has let go or furloughed more than 250 employees.

The exterior of Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico on its first anniversary. Photo by Grendelkhan, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It isn’t just traditional museums that are being forced to make devastating staff cuts amid the ongoing public health crisis. Meow Wolf, one of the pioneers of the “experience economy,” has eliminated 201 positions and furloughed an additional 56 employees after its home state of New Mexico issued a stay-at-home order on March 23. After the layoffs, the company’s staff has been reduced to just under 200 people, less than half its former size.

“Today we will have to part ways with a significant portion of our family through layoffs and furloughs,” wrote Meow Wolf co-CEOs Jim Ward, Ali Rubenstein, and Carl Christensen in an email to staff shared by the Santa Fe Reporter. The decision was made “given the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding the time of recovery, in addition to the need to properly position the company for survival and future success… we are heartbroken.”

Not too long ago, Meow Wolf was poised for explosive growth. The art collective turned art and entertainment company opened its immersive art space House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe in 2016 to immediate popular acclaim. Last year, it raised $158 million to open additional spaces across the country.

Meow Wolf’s layoffs affected workers at venues yet to open in Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Washington, DC, in addition to New Mexico. Meow Wolf’s founders and CEOs are also taking pay cuts in order to fund severance benefits, although the extent of the pay cuts was not immediately clear.

Lauren Adele Oliver's Space Owl at Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return. Photo by Ben Davis.

Lauren Adele Oliver’s Space Owl at Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A spokesperson for Meow Wolf said the company would provide laid-off employees severance over a six-month period, which would be supplemented with aid from the State of New Mexico and federal government. Although she declined to detail the specifics of the severance packages, she said they “will add up to a significant contribution towards stabilizing these colleagues’ income.”

The success of the Meow Wolf model was echoed by a proliferation of other non-traditional exhibition spaces designed to engage the viewer through experiential installations and Instagram-friendly photo ops. (Think the Museum of Ice Cream, the Color Factory, and spaces celebrating everything from dreams to pizza.) The pop-up museum trend has even influenced the way that established institutions are thinking about programming—but a prolonged economic downturn, not to mention a prolonged period pre-vaccine where people may be afraid to gather in crowded public spaces, could completely change the trajectory of the field.

Despite the downturn in the company’s fortunes, Meow Wolf remains optimistic about the future. “The plans for opening exhibitions in Las Vegas and Denver are very much alive,” the founders said. “We believe in our remaining team and that they will not only carry us through this time, but will continue the tradition of mind bending creativity with which Meow Wolf has become synonymous.”

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