Can an Art Collective Become the Disney of the Experience Economy?
Meow Wolf started as a loose group of penniless punks. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar dream factory anchoring an “immersive bazaar” in Las Vegas.
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ou might be tempted to call AREA15, a development that opens in December a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, a mall; its investors would prefer that you did not. The word “mall,” in the second decade of the 21st century, has come to be a word for something dying, if not dead. It connotes suburban sprawl, vacant department stores, plummeting real estate values. Accordingly, even though it will most likely feature retail tenants, an ice-cream parlor, a gift shop and a food court, AREA15 is being billed as something fresh and exciting — an “immersive bazaar,” an “experiential retail and entertainment complex,” a place where “artists are front and center.”
The developer Winston Fisher gave me a tour in February, when AREA15 was still a half-built concrete box with construction equipment trundling through the mud. Fisher could nonetheless envision what it would become: “a place of wonder.” Practically speaking, this means that there will be things like an arcade and an escape room, and that even the more traditional retail tenants — a shop selling sneakers, say — will feature some sort of interactive V.R. component. AREA15 will also host events. Fisher rattled off some ideas: “Deep house, E.D.M., drone racing, TED Talks, a barbecue competition.”
As the third-generation representative of Fisher Brothers, a New York real estate development firm, Fisher is well aware of the industry’s anxiety about what’s sometimes called “the experience economy” — the idea that, when it’s possible to buy or watch virtually anything online, the only way to get people to leave their houses and spend money is to offer them a fresh, surprising experience. “Most people in real estate today,” he told me, “are approaching the experience economy from fear.”
Fisher and I were talking in AREA15’s leasing-and-sales office, a broad, dark space with neon accents that seemed intended to telegraph a sense of playfulness. The room was dominated by two sculptures that were previously manifested at Burning Man: a 12-foot skull with shape-shifting images projected on its surface and a gleaming tangle of stainless-steel piping that was apparently a fully functional car. Fisher showed me renderings of the end point of all the construction. Schematic people danced to a D.J. in the event space; they lifted up their phones to take pictures of a 40-foot bamboo volcano. One long section of the floor plan was blank. It represented the 50,000 square feet of AREA15 that would be given over to the development’s anchor tenant, Meow Wolf. “We’ve blocked this out, because we’re not at liberty to describe what they’re doing yet,” Fisher said coyly.
For people like Fisher, the improbably named Meow Wolf has emerged as the great experiential-economy hope; the company’s most enthusiastic boosters claim that it’s poised to become the Disney of the 21st century. Meow Wolf’s story echoes the classic start-up narrative, in which the brilliant underdogs make it big against improbable odds. Six years ago, the group was an anarchic collective of artists who were barely known outside Santa Fe, N.M., their hometown. They numbered a dozen, or a few dozen, depending on how you felt like counting, and were known for prankish installations and raucous warehouse parties.
In the years since, as the group’s playful aesthetic has aligned with the market’s appetites, it has undergone a dizzying transformation. Meow Wolf has broken ground on a $60 million flagship project in Denver that will have more art-exhibit space than the Guggenheim and signed on to build a three-story, 75,000-square-foot permanent installation in Washington. Visitors to the Denver-area amusement park Elitch Gardens can strap in for a trip on a Meow Wolf ride, complete with laser guns and animatronic creatures; in a few years, you’ll be able to spend the night at the 400-room Meow Wolf hotel in Phoenix. The company produces music videos, runs an annual festival and recently opened a production studio that will churn out television shows and podcasts. It manufactures and sells the Experience Tube, a five-foot length of stretchy fabric that is supposed to foster human connection — if you stick your head in the tube, you are forced to look at the face of the person at the other end instead of your phone — and that baffled Hoda and Kathie Lee when it was featured on the “Today” show in 2017. Thousands of these tubes have since been sold. They retail for $29.95 each, which is perhaps the real punch line to the joke, as well as a microcosm of the Meow Wolf story as a whole: Make something to amuse your friends; discover that it anticipates the zeitgeist; become wildly successful. After Meow Wolf’s most recent fund-raising round concluded earlier this year, what was once a loose confederation of scrappy punks was a corporation with a nine-figure valuation.
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