Art News

Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek Steps Down – for Now

Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe has drawn visitors from around the world.
Kate Russell/Meow Wolf
Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe has drawn visitors from around the world.
Vince Kadlubek stepped down from his role as Meow Wolf CEO on October 18; he will be replaced by a team of the company's officers, all of whom have considerable corporate experience.

"I am excited to move into a new phase of my career with Meow Wolf," Kadlubek wrote on the Meow Wolf blog. "I have chosen to shift from the position of CEO in order to focus on developing a new toolset of skills, build key business development initiatives, and take care of my personal health. I will continue serving on our company’s Board of Directors and will serve as an executive advisor to our leadership team."

Kadlubek will be replaced by three people: Chief Creative Officer Ali Rubinstein, Chief Financial Officer Carl Christensen, and Chief of Content Jim Ward. All are relatively new additions to a group that started off as a Santa Fe collective just over a decade ago, then exploded into an entertainment conglomerate after opening House of Eternal Return in March 2016.

Rubinstein spent more than 22 years at Walt Disney Imaginineering; Christensen has worked at Goldman Sachs, and the Color Run race series; and Ward served as president of LucasArts and senior vice president of Lucasfilm, according to Albuquerque Business First.

"The Officer group will join Meow Wolf founders, department heads, and project leadership in this execution phase as we focus on delivering two major projects in the next two years: Meow Wolf Vegas and Meow Wolf Denver," Kadlubek wrote. "I have full confidence in our entire company, and we are all in good hands with the leadership of our founders and Officer team."

Kadlubek has been at the helm of the Santa Fe-based organization for most of its existence. He was there in the early days, when Meow Wolf was a dumpster-diving DIY arts collective, and less than a decade later, when it became a multimillion-dollar corporation, garnering comparisons to Disney and bringing psychedelic immersive arts to cities nationwide.

click to enlarge
Construction continues on Meow Wolf Denver, in the shadow of the Colfax viaduct.
Patricia Calhoun
The company plans to open a Denver outpost in 2021 (pushed back from original estimates of 2020), is throwing a three-day rave called Dark Palace at the National Western Complex from November 22 to November 24, and has already launched Kaleidoscape, a surrealist dark ride at Elitch Gardens.

Meow Wolf has funded art projects and DIY spaces in Denver, as well as hiring artists to work on Meow Wolf Denver. Dozens of local artists have already collaborated with the company on projects (most of whom have signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about the organization and its impact on Denver's arts scene).

While Meow Wolf has become a major economic force in Santa Fe, it was sued this summer for gender discrimination and unfair labor practices, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican. The company has also been accused of unethically forcing investors to sell shares of stock, which led to rumblings of another class-action lawsuit, reported the Denver Post. In addition to the Denver and Vegas projects, Meow Wolf has plans in the works for Phoenix and Washington, D.C.

Kadlubek's tenure as CEO has been challenged by criticisms from the DIY community that spawned and supported Meow Wolf. Some say the company is preying on local arts scenes; for others, Kadlubek's capitalist aspirations have raised eyebrows as critics wonder whether Meow Wolf is attempting too much, too fast.

The arts publication Hyperallergic got into a public spat with Meow Wolf over a story written by Erin Joyce, which offered the following criticism: "The problem with Meow Wolf is that it is a supreme act of late stage capitalism disguised through the collective’s mantra of the underdog as art savior.”

Recently, Kadlubek was on social media debating Denver activist Ross Swirling, frontman for the band Allout Helter, about whether money affects art.

Mid-discussion, Swirling asked:  "You sound wealthy, can I have a hundred bucks?"

Kadlubek sent him the money.

Swirling's response: "The CEO of Meow Wolf gave me $100 cuz I slightly made fun of him on the internet for being rich. That's actually pretty cool, but maybe pay your employees fairly instead of throwing money at your ego on a whim to prove how cool of a rich guy you are to strangers. Also: YOU CANT FUCKING BUY ME, DENVER DIY FOR LIFE."

As Kadlubek tells it in his October 18 post, he was never primed to be a businessman.

"Five years ago, in the fall of 2014, I was making $50/day delivering food, living at my parents’ house on the south side of Santa Fe, and dreaming of becoming an accomplished playwright," he wrote. "I was 32 years old with no college education or formal business training, throwing underground dance parties at local dive bars and wondering what I was doing with my life.

"Only 14 months later I became CEO of New Mexico’s fastest growing startup company, and our team of artists unveiled one of the most impactful pieces of art in the 21st century," he adds. "On March 16, 2016 Meow Wolf opened House of Eternal Return to the public and my life became forever and radically changed."

House of Eternal Return is a massive art installation situated in an old bowling alley, where thousands of visitors wander dozens of psychedelic rooms in a fictitious old Victorian mansion, trying to solve a sci-fi mystery: What happened to the family that once lived there? The project was funded by a loan from Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin that totaled more than $2 million.

As chronicled in the documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story, Kadlubek's time with the company has long been fraught. He has left as a leader before, only to return. And in his resignation letter, he left that possibility open again.

"My personal learning curve has oftentimes been steep, operating with unsophisticated leadership tools and learning concepts on the fly," he wrote. "I am proud of the work that I have performed and proud of the leadership I have provided, yet for the first time in my professional career I feel like I have reached a ceiling. The toolset I used to get the company to this point is no longer the toolset needed for further growth or solid execution. I recognize that I can become an even stronger asset for the company by choosing to learn more sophisticated techniques in hopeful preparation for returning as CEO in the future."

Today, October 22, Meow Wolf announced on Twitter that it would take the day off: "closed today due to bad vibes :'("