DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST:
If you've ever been to Santa Fe, you've seen its world-class art museums and chichi art shops. You've mingled with wealthy art collectors who come from all over the world. But now there's a new kind of art exhibition in Santa Fe, and it couldn't be more different. Just imagine you've walked into a family home and suddenly, you get lost in a wacky Tim Burton movie set. That's the "House Of Eternal Return."
It's kind of like an art amusement park in the city's industrial district. An arts collective called Meow Wolf dreamed it up, and they got millions of dollars from a surprising benefactor to do it. NPR's and be ours Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi has the story.
ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When I arrive for my tour the night before the "House Of Eternal Return" opens, dozens of the collective's 135 artists are scrambling to put the finishing touches on their meticulously-crafted installations. We're talking treetop witch huts, a neon shantytown and an electronic harp with strings made out of laser beams.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm standing inside a two-story Victorian house that marks the entrance of the exhibition built from scratch inside what used to be the city's only bowling alley. All around me, there are uncanny reminders of the Seligs, the fictional family that once lived here, who I'm told have mysteriously disappeared after a break in the space-time continuum. I've been dropped into the middle of an interdimensional mystery with free reign to explore.
CHADNEY EVERETT: It's not art that you stand back from and look at. It's art you interact with and you experience in a very visceral way.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Chadney Everett designed the house. He's a painter and former movie prop maker. And like most of the people I meet here, he's got a cult-like dedication to making Meow Wolf's vision of immersive art accessible to everybody. He's been putting in 14-hour days to finish, even though he's got a herniated disc.
EVERETT: Yeah, it's been really hard, but it's so worth it. And I get to rest in a couple days. (Laughter) We're going to be open in a couple days, and then I'll rest and fix my spine, you know? (Laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Across the room, a normal-looking family fireplace leads into a series of prehistoric caves. I crawl through and find a glowing 12-foot mastodon skeleton. Sculptor Matt Crimmins turned its rib cage into a radiant makeshift marimba.
MATT CRIMMINS: Yeah, we're in the rib cage. We're in the belly of the beast. (Playing ribcage marimba). We're still trying to work out the kinks but it's getting there.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The same could largely be said of Meow Wolf as a whole. Founding member Vince Kadlubek says when the collective started eight years ago, it was just a small band of creative 20-somethings who felt out of place in Santa Fe's highbrow art establishment.
VINCE KADLUBEK: We kind of always felt like we were on the outside looking in.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So they started their own DIY venue in a defunct barbershop. Kadlubek says that as the collective grew in size and popularity, their shows grew more elaborate. But they didn't have a large space of their own.
KADLUBEK: We all knew that it could work, but we just didn't have the heavy hitter. We needed somebody to take a risk on us.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So they asked this guy.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Hi there. This is George R. R. Martin.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: For the uninitiated, George R.R. Martin is the mastermind behind the "Game Of Thrones" books and HBO show. In his adopted hometown of Santa Fe, Martin has become something of a latter-day Medici. He reopened an old art-house movie theater and converted a vacant high school into artist studios. Martin didn't plan on buying an old bowling alley. But when Meow Wolf showed him the space and told him what they planned to do with it, he couldn't resist.
MARTIN: And they explained this vision of a Victorian house, unmoored in time and space with a haunted forest and a magical cave system and portals to other worlds. And of course, it pushed all my buttons. I love that kind of stuff.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So George R. R. Martin bought and leased the place to Meow Wolf for the next 10 years and spent an additional $2.5 million on renovations. That was enough to help Meow Wolf raise enough money from investors to build their arts complex. It also includes a nonprofit education wing for kids and an artist center with training and access to equipment like 3-D printers and laser cutters. Artist Megan Roniger says the art complex fits in well with the wider arts ecosystem.
MEGAN RONIGER: So you've got these large institutions - your museums and universities. You've got your commercial galleries and then you have the experimental spaces, and they are all hopefully informing one another.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meow Wolf has now gone from DIY collective to a for-profit company. So in addition to solving problems like how to cut a bus in half or rig animatronic eyeballs to follow passersby, they also have to figure out how to bring in enough visitors to and grow the business.
Meow Wolf members are confident that they'll be able to attract families as well as tap into the millions of tourists who visit Santa Fe every year. Admmission is about the price of a movie ticket. And of course, as visitors leave the "House Of Eternal Return," they'll exit through the gift shop. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.
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