Another Denver artist has joined the complaints against Meow Wolf, the ever-expanding Santa Fe-based immersive arts outfit that got its start as a ragtag collective a decade ago. In August, artist/activist Zoë Williams, the director of community outreach for Meow Wolf Denver, which is slated to open in 2021, filed a claim with the State of New Mexico, charging that Meow Wolf discriminates against its female and gender non-binary employees.
Now Mar Williams, a narrative illustrator for Meow Wolf (and no relation to Zoë Williams), joined what has become a full-fledged lawsuit filed in District Court in Santa Fe.
In July, two former employees of Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, Tara Khozein and Gina Maciuszek, filed a lawsuit claiming they were subjected to discrimination and unfair pay practices, then wrongfully fired after bringing complaints to senior staff. The two had earlier filed complaints against Meow Wolf with the New Mexico Human Rights Bureau, but in May that agency issued “Orders of Non-Determination” in response. Their suit, which they've said will be turned into a class-action case, names Vince Kadlubek, the Meow Wolf co-founder who stepped down as CEO in October; he and other individuals have filed motions to have their names dismissed from the case.
The suit filed by Zoë Williams and Mar Williams, who are both gender non-binary, also names Kadlubek, as well as Marianne Palacios, vice president of human resources, as defendants.
In response to their filing, Meow Wolf issued the following statement:
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We are disappointed by these baseless allegations, which run completely counter to our culture, and we will strongly defend against them through the legal process.
For the record, Zoe Williams and Mar Williams are both still employees of Meow Wolf. They were neither targeted or wrongfully terminated and this is an example of the falsehoods that are propagated in this claim, which is riddled with false accusations.
Meow Wolf is firmly committed to fair employment practices, equitable pay and supportive treatment of all employees. Beyond the letter of our strict formal policies prohibiting discrimination of any type, we have recognized the need to proactively address the potential for gender bias in society at large and, as such, have invited an open, forward-looking, productive – and ongoing – internal dialogue designed to continue to ensure our workplace is positive, respectful and safe and our workforce is informed and engaged.
The Denver plaintiffs issued their own statement on December 13, noting:
The current and former employees paint a picture where women and non-binary people who speak up face harassment, surveillance, isolation, and pressure to resign, or are fired outright, while men are prioritized for leadership, raises, and promotions. According to their suit, despite claims to support a healthy work environment, Meow Wolf fails to protect women, transgender, and non-binary employees from discrimination. Meanwhile, the company actively discourages employees from collective bargaining or elevating equity issues. When the group of current and former employees approached the Human Resources Department for support, they describe being isolated and pressured to quit.
The plaintiffs plan to consolidate the two lawsuits, "which were filed separately for procedural reasons only," they say in a joint statement. "Gina, Tara, Mar, and Zoë together are seeking transparency, systems change, and an end to abusive treatment of Meow Wolf employees."
Last month, as Mar Williams was contemplating joining the lawsuit, we reached out to the artist, a 2016 Westword MasterMind for Williams's work at Cabal Gallery, among other efforts, to ask about the complaints.
Westword: What happened at Meow Wolf?
Mar Williams: From the start, I had issues with Meow Wolf coming to Denver, their practices, and how they were engaging with the art community. I think initially I got hired, at least in part, so I'd shut up about it. Working for them, I was told my opinion was valued, but when I actually spoke up, I'd be ignored and walled off from other people in the company. I felt very much like I was just there as a token. It was incredibly frustrating, but it was hard to tell exactly what was going on, and why, in the vacuum they created. When I read about Tara and Gina experiencing a very similar pattern in Santa Fe and then sharing experiences with Zoë here in Denver, I learned that this wasn't just me, and not limited to one place. This is a company-wide issue. So I'm joining for myself, and to help other women, trans and non-binary people who can step forward with their experiences.
What was your role with the company, and how has that changed?
My role is Narrative Illustrator officially, though I joined up thinking I'd be involved in installation work as well. That never came to fruition.
Are the people you've accused of harming you still a part of the company? Who were they?
Vince and others. Vince has stepped down from the CEO position, but he's still on the board. And as far as I can tell from his public statement about it, he's probably coming back as CEO. Sounded to me more like he's on vacation or maybe just hanging around in the background until things cool off.
What role did Vince play, if any?
Many of my issues have come from working with Vince directly, but they also span different people who are interconnected within the company. I feel like Vince is primarily responsible for the way I am being treated, not only because of how he acts with me, but also because of the directives he’s given to isolate me.
Why are you still involved?
I've considered quitting many times. But I do have some hope that Meow Wolf does something to actually address the problems instead of just paying lip service. Knowing what's going on means Denver artists are going to be better equipped to stand up to them and get better treatment. I know people contracting for Meow who are taking less than they're worth and facing some of the same issues, and it's very likely that there are artists dealing with this stuff that don't know it's happening to others. Meow Wolf is affecting the art community, so I'm all in for sparking discussion outside of the carefully curated Meow Wolf-led conversations.
How do the issues of gender discrimination relate to the company's larger culture?
Thank you for asking that! Gender discrimination is a very important piece of a broader issue. Their practices are deceptive. Meow Wolf is a corporation wrapped in a sparkly collectivist, socially conscious, queer, DIY package — it's wokewashing. At least, that's the face they sell to the public. Zoe certainly works incredibly hard to make sure that Meow Wolf walks the walk, but I think Zoe also feels like their voice isn’t being heard, either. The reality is you've got some politically conservative, pro-corporate, hard-core capitalists running the ship now. And that's built on the back of a culture that was never very woke to begin with.
How have they impacted Denver area artists' relationship to the project?
I think there are people who don't trust Meow Wolf, and haven't, for good reasons.
It's harder to speak to the project. The project is a mixture of artists, their art and the core company itself. So let's piece that out. I'll add here what I said to a Santa Fe reporter the other day: "I'd like it to be known that I think the art being created for Meow Wolf Denver is probably going to be very cool. A handful of these people making the art are good friends, and I fully support them. My problem with Meow Wolf isn't the art. I think when you paste a brand across the names of really killer, hardworking artists in the community, criticizing the brand becomes near impossible. There's not enough separation. And I'm certain they leverage that when dissent arises. My problem isn't with the artists or the art. It's with Meow Wolf the corporation and its practices."
So I imagine these issues coming up within the company are going to be difficult for anyone close to the project.
Side tangent here, because I'm talking about mistrust and such: Early on, it was heavily implied that artists close to the company would have more opportunities. "Meow Wolf rewards persistence" was the phrase thrown around. In the beginning, they told artists that Meow Wolf Denver would be more than 50 percent Denver artist;, then that number kept going down. Meow Wolf talked big about paying artists a living wage, etc. They only recently have raised their low end to $17 an hour. My understanding is that minimum doesn't apply to contract workers, who are the majority of Denver artists working with them. They're paying artists less than the national average. Just because a company is boasting about paying artists doesn't mean it's fair pay.
What are your thoughts on the company's impact in Denver?
They've put some money into DIY spaces and community projects, and that's good, but it's important to look at how they're benefiting from this relationship with artists, and the relationship with the city.
I worry about gate-keeping and exploitation. The city won't listen to artists unless they're associated with a big corporation with [money]. So many DIY and art spaces in Denver have closed in the time since Meow Wolf came to town. A lot of local artists can't even afford to live in Denver anymore. And sure, there are some other opportunities out there, but the visibility of Meow Wolf creates this impression in the larger public of Meow Wolf as the hero, swooping in to save the art community. It's bullshit, but it puts pressure on artists to kiss their asses and take less than they're worth.
How is the complaint going? What has the response been, and what's next?
Vince has said publicly that the prior discrimination accusations are baseless. He certainly has a lot of cheerleaders. I think in the end, Meow Wolf isn't going to be able to skirt these issues. So I look forward to that.
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Update: December 17, 2019: Meow Wolf offered the following statement in response to Mar Williams's interview:
In response to Mar stating, “Vince has stepped down from the CEO position, but he's still on the board. And as far as I can tell from his public statement about it, he's probably coming back as CEO. Sounded to me more like he's on vacation or maybe just hanging around in the background until things cool off.”
-Vince stepped aside as CEO in October 2019. He is still on the board of directors and remains actively engaged as an Executive Advisor.
In response to Mar stating, “I know people contracting for Meow who are taking less than they're worth and facing some of the same issues.”
-We do not have reports of this and we respond to issues. We do our best to address concerns raised to us and accommodate requests as we can.
In response to Mar stating, “In the beginning, they told artists that Meow Wolf Denver would be more than 50 percent Denver artists, then that number kept going down. Meow Wolf talked big about paying artists a living wage, etc. They only recently have raised their low end to $17 an hour. My understanding is that minimum doesn't apply to contract workers, who are the majority of Denver artists working with them. They're paying artists less than the national average.”
-We have over 110 collaborating artists in Denver or Colorado working on the permanent installation, from rooms to sculptures to music and dioramas. We have worked hard to make sure this was a diverse cohort of emerging artists, people of color, and women.
-Our artist fees are not based on number of hours or hourly wages. Due to the number of hours necessary for project completion being unknown at this time, we can't extrapolate an hourly rate from the artist fees, but current calculations show this as higher than the $17 minimum wage we offer to hourly employees.
-In 2019, the community outreach team also hired 15 Colorado artists for pop up opportunities, festival performances and visual arts. And we’ve worked with local artists on our two major Denver based projects in 2019:
Kaleidoscape: An immersive “Dark Ride” at Elitch Gardens featuring 8 Denver-based artists contributed to the ride in major areas
Dark Palace: A three night electronic dance event featuring 22 Colorado artists, visual and performance
In response to Mar stating, “...so many DIY and art spaces in Denver have closed in the time since Meow Wolf came to town."
-We’re not members of the community yet as we have not opened, thus this is not our impact - these are already happening and our DIY Fund seeks to help prevent spaces from closing.
In response to Mar stating, “They've put some money into DIY spaces and community projects, and that's good, but it's important to look at how they're benefiting from this relationship with artists, and the relationship with the city.”
-Our total DIY Fund contributions are over $100,000 distributed to small scale arts and music spaces in Colorado in the last 2 years, including $7,500 to Mar Williams’ Cabal Gallery
-We’ve also donated $22k in proceeds from Dark Palace benefitted two Colorado-based organizations, The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network and Birdseed Collective
In response to Mar stating, “Meow Wolf is a corporation wrapped in a sparkly collectivist, socially conscious, queer, DIY package — it's wokewashing.”
-We are a certified B Corporation and undergo a third party certification every 3 years. This is reviewed and approved by strict certification guidelines through the B Lab: https://bcorporation.net/certification.
-Meow Wolf is firmly committed to fair employment practices, equitable pay and supportive treatment of all employees.
Update, Friday, December 20: Mar Williams responded to Meow Wolf's response with the following:
Cabal was a non-profit, volunteer run, collective gallery, not "Mar Williams's'" Cabal Gallery.
The funding from Meow Wolf was a mess that was ultimately responsible for me losing thousands of my own dollars, and a broken lease I never would have signed had I known how Meow Wolf was going to handle it.
I'm not surprised by Vince highlighting the more visible positive part of the story, while ignoring the consequences of their actions behind the scenes.