A Year to Remember for Meow Wolf

January 8, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Meow Wolf, an arts collective that employs many St. John’s graduates, had a major year in terms of expansion and recognition. Photo courtesy of meowwolf.com.

It’s been a big year for Santa Fe-based arts company Meow Wolf. The collective, which counts Graduate Institute alumnus Sean Di Ianni (SFGI13) among its founders and employs about a dozen St. John’s students and alumni at any given time, has experienced unprecedented growth since the opening of its “House of Eternal Return” installation in 2016.

A quick recap—in the last 12 months, Meow Wolf: announced new permanent installations in Denver, Las Vegas, and Washington, DC (opening in 2020, 2019, and 2022, respectively); premiered a documentary about its founding that was shown at 700 theaters nationwide and, in conjunction with a virtual reality piece, party, and immersive playground, won the Spirit of SXSW Award at South by Southwest; celebrated their one millionth guest; and were named one of Time Out’s Top Fifty Things to Do in the World Right Now, coming in at No. 4.

“It’s been a huge, huge year for us. 2019 is going to be really exciting. We’ve got a lot of projects going on and we’re pretty excited about it,” says Di Ianni. “We’re hovering around 400 employees now, and that’s split between the creative side of the company and the operating installation.”

According to Di Ianni, that includes “a Johnnie on our tech team, a Johnnie on our creative direction team, a concept artist that’s a Johnnie, some who are doing narrative work, some who are creating artwork … it spreads the gamut of things we do.”

Though details about the new installations are being kept quiet (or, in the case of the newly announced DC installation, are not yet fleshed out), Di Ianni is looking forward to further involvement from local talent in Meow Wolf’s new locations.

“We’re going to be doing some community outreach in the next several months. We’re excited to work with local artists and creatives, and there will also be opportunities for ongoing employment at the operating facilities once they’re up and running,” he says.

Johnnies, he asserts, are particularly well-suited to the work of the collective.

“For me, I got a BFA in sculpture and that program was a lot about critique, the process of looking at a classmate’s artwork and just discussing it. It was in some ways very similar to seminar. Both of the programs are very collaborative. It was all about learning from your peers and developing an understanding through a collaborative learning environment,” he explains. “When I got involved with Meow Wolf in 2008, we would have weekly meetings where we just sat down and had an open discussion. It was pretty anarchic, so it was different than St. John’s in a lot of ways, but there was a similar, collaborative, discussion-based environment where we were inquiring together and figuring things out as a collective.”

“St. John’s is all about having a breadth of knowledge and being able to think critically about lots of different things,” he continues. “Meow Wolf is a totally interdisciplinary company. We produce entertainment, we have programmers on our team, we have sculptors and painters and project managers and finance people. In order for us all to work together, we all have to understand a little bit about what everybody does. St. John’s has a similar kind of approach, a classic liberal arts approach to breaking down silos of thought and thinking across disciplines.”

Sean Di Ianni
Sean Di Ianni (SFGI13) is one of the founders of Meow Wolf.

For Di Ianni, the mathematics and natural science components of the GI were “eye-opening,” helping him realize that with time and effort, he could figure out just about anything. That has certainly been the case with Meow Wolf, where he started as a studio artist and now serves as the co-founder and executive vice president for exhibitions. Such confidence is evident in other Johnnies working at the company at every level, too.

“That kind of creative, collaborative, critical thinking environment is really resonant,” he explains.

The emphasis on creation and collaboration is so intense, Di Ianni admits, that sometimes he forgets to look up and enjoy Meow Wolf’s incredible, rapid success.

“I’m very much in the day-to-day here, running the exhibitions division that creates all of the physical elements of the exhibitions and does all the project management for them. It’s helpful now and then to stick my head up from the weeds and realize, oh my gosh, this is an incredible thing, and people really love it. It’s pretty surreal,” he says. “I didn’t expect this to happen; I was just looking for a community of creative people that I could hang out with. But although I never expected it to take off like this, I think that community-building impulse is still part of what we do today. There’s a thread there that’s really consistent. People are hungry for authentic experience. They really want to have direct contact with the work of artists.”

While there is pressure to continue to get bigger and better and live up to an ever-expanding reputation, however, Di Ianni says Meow Wolf is more than used to pushing itself.

“People ask us how this happened so quickly, but it actually took 10 years to accidentally prototype something that we then discovered people are really hungry for,” he says. “We were just expressing ourselves. It’s been an amazing combination of hard work and ambition and luck and a community of people sticking together in hard times and continuing to see the value in working together. We’ve always wanted to push ourselves. That was just part of the artistic process. We would be pushing ourselves whether the world was expecting something or not, just because we want to see amazing things get made and we want to see amazing experiences happen.”