On October 24, 2019, Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe-based arts and entertainment group, held a community meeting about its plans to open a new location here in the neighborhood in Riggs Park. Meow Wolf is planning locations in Denver and Las Vegas as well.
The meeting served as the company’s introduction to the community. It is challenging to articulate what exactly Meow Wolf is. Danika Padilla, Senior Director of Social Impact, started off by sharing the company’s origin story. It was started by a group of friends in 2008 as an artist collective who just wanted to make weird, interesting, immersive art, and that is what they offer. For example, for one exhibit, an artist who uses a wheelchair designed a space with low ceilings so that people could engage with the space from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair.
Since 2017, it has been a certified B-corporation, a certification for businesses that want to do social good. It is not a nonprofit organization. They describe their business as one with a triple bottom line focused on financial, social, and environmental well-being. Their website has a lot of information about their philanthropy, artist engagement, DIY Fund, and community support.
Han Sayles, Director of Artist Collaboration, spoke a bit about the artist engagement piece and how the company wants to know how it can serve the DC area artist landscape. They are very interested in providing a space for local artists to share their work and be paid fair compensation for their work.
They were also there to listen and find out how they can be a good neighbor. They have hired a local DC artist and resident, Jamal Gray, to serve as a community outreach liaison. They posed several questions to get the conversation started, listed below in no particular order:
- In what ways can Meow Wolf support artists?
- What inspires you about your community?
- What is important to know about the community?
- What do you enjoy doing for fun in your community?
- How can Meow Wolf be a good neighbor?
- What advice would you give to foster inclusivity and accessibility for local residents?
- Are there local resources or groups that Meow Wolf should be aware of?
- What are the challenges for new businesses coming into the area?
- What else would you like Meow Wolf to know?
There were actually two sessions in the same evening; information presented at each was the same. I only attended the second session, so I am only sharing observations from that session. Besides providing feedback on these questions, audience members raised questions about a variety of topics. It was apparent that some people did not realize that Meow Wolf will be part of a much larger development, Art Place at Fort Totten. People asked what other retailers will be part of the development, stating their desire not to have chains. Meow Wolf has no control over that, but did state they have asked the Cafritz Foundation, which is developing the project, to prioritize local retailers. One resident raised a point about making the space environmentally green, considering the number of trees that will be cut down for the development itself. Meow Wolf talked about wanting to have a compost system. They also noted that in Santa Fe, 70% of the visitors are tourists, so for DC they really want to think about ways to incentivize using public transit to access the site.
There was a protracted discussion about gentrification and how some believe this project will be a gentrifying force in the community (gentrification being undefined). Meow Wolf noted that they prize community engagement, showing up and listenting to the unique needs of the community. To that end, they plan to have a community advisory group for the DC location just as they do for their other locations.
They are really interested in finding out how they can be helpful in the local DC area artist landscape. For example in Denver, with the community advisory group, Meow Wolf set a goal that 40% of the artists involved in that location be local artists, and they said they have reached that goal. The artists in the room asked about the boundaries of what is considered a local artist, to which Meow Wolf responded they are definitely looking at Baltimore and Richmond area artists for the DC location. The artist engagement page has a link for people to submit their portfolios if they are interested in being part of a launch event or showing in the space. Some had very specific questions about whether there would be space for music performances or live fire shows. Likely yes to the first question, not sure about the second.
On a personal note, as Art Place starts to build out arts-focused programming in the next phase, I think it would be really awesome for these organizations to provide an opportunity for young people to really explore. While I do believe everything is not for everybody and one thing cannot be all things to everyone, I do not think we should automatically discount certain spaces as off-limits or “not for us” for any particular group of people, whether that be seniors, youth, or people of color, especially if there is an opportunity to engage early on with the creators of the space. Building out a junior staff program for young people or even a work-study program for people of all ages would be really great for the neighborhood. The idea is to expose youth not just to the arts in terms of creating art, but also the many possible careers supporting the arts, such as teaching, fundraising, marketing, and program development. Meow Wolf noted in response to a question that the DC location will provide about 100 jobs, not just for artists but for positions that will support the building and maintenance of exhibits and programming. I also think arts programming provides a really great opportunity of fostering intergenerational interaction. The notion that all artists are young and that the space will only appeal to millenials is not accurate to me. Just my view.
I think the bottom line is that with opening still a few years away in 2022, Meow Wolf is really interested in hearing how immediate community members see this space being part of the community. At 75,000 square feet, it is going to be a big space. If you are interested in providing feedback to the questions listed above or about anything else, email DC@MeowWolf.com.