Some businesses have been more affected by the Covid-19 pandemic than others. While on-line commerce has thrived, in person activities such as visiting a restaurant, bar or movie theater have continued to face an uneven recovery.
Previously I have written about how an interactive arts space, Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf which operates the House of Eternal Return, was dealing with the challenges of Covid. As an immersive arts and entertainment exhibition built around interactive experiences, mysterious and magical worlds and features such as slides and secret passageways, social distancing guidelines were particularly challenging for such a business to meet. Meow Wolf was guided by its deep social mission and identity as a B Corp in how it handled both visitors to its space and employees.
We also had discussed Meow Wolf’s expansion plans and it was great to hear that after facing multiple delays due to the pandemic, it opened its second permanent exhibition, Omega Mart in Las Vegas on February 18, 2021. Omega Mart starts out as an exhibition in the form of an average-seeming supermarket featuring aisles filled with thought provoking products that highlight the “bizarre, mysterious and often hilarious nature of consumer culture” as Corvas Brinkerhoff, Meow Wolf Co-Founder and SVP of Experience Design, and Executive Creative Director for Meow Wolf Las Vegas told me.For example, “Nut Free Salted Peanuts” is “nut free”, i.e. 100% salt, although a disclaimer notes that it may contain peanuts. Participants soon discover there’s more than meets the eye at Omega Mart, and embark on a journey through hidden portals into a world of surreal landscapes and immersive storytelling that inspires a real life choose-your-own-adventure game.
At the time of its opening, Las Vegas still faced many health and safety restriction mandates, including reduced capacity. Omega Mart opened at a reduced capacity of 25% and was able to expand to full capacity in May, with several health and safety protocols still in action daily by Omega Mart to ensure guest and employee safety and wellness. Since then it has attracted record-breaking attendance numbers, and tourists continue to flock to Omega Mart.
As part of my research on social businesses I recently had the chance to talk to Brinkerhoff about Omega Mart, and topics such as how the pandemic shaped the opening and the experience of opening an exhibition in Las Vegas. See below for our edited conversation.
Christopher Marquis: What was the inspiration for Omega Mart?
Corvas Brinkerhoff: Can we reconnect you with your imagination in a new and mind-blowing way? Can we disrupt a status quo way of thinking? Can we explode our collective sense of possibility into a thousand fractal shards of color and creativity? Can we create a setting where an artist can completely unleash themselves? This is the kind of thing we draw inspiration from. Then every project has its own unique set of sources and influences.
Omega Mart is about the bizarre, mysterious and often hilarious nature of consumer culture. It’s much more than a critique or satire, though. It’s really a joyous and earnest exploration of modern life and the wonderful - if not utterly surreal - renderings of culture that come with having nearly everything you can possibly desire at your fingertips. Just who and what are we becoming? Omega Mart is not asking you to shuck or hide from our culture, it’s an invitation to find the humor, mystery, and beauty below the surface.
As you dig deeper, you will find winding narratives that pull you into the secret underpinnings of a cyber-spiritual mega corporation, Dramcorp. Think Church of Scientology crossed with Amazon. You’ll find the story of a group of young people banding together and claiming their power. Eventually, you’ll uncover a story about evolution, resistance to change, and the power of creativity. I’m inspired by simple and beautiful metaphors, stories that help me understand my place in the universe.
And beneath all of that, it’s just an excuse to give artists an opportunity to make work at an incredible scale and depth. If nothing else, it’s a world-class collection of amazing pieces of immersive art. We are artists and we are inspired by artists.
Artists Emily Montoya and Benji Geary are the core of the creative vision behind Omega Mart, the store itself. (It’s a bit confusing because the store is about 10% of the exhibition and its namesake, the other 90% being other art installations and otherworldly explorable dimensions). They lead up the creative vision for the store itself, including all the advertisements, products, interior design, music, etc. They are both just persistent fountains of brilliant ideas. My hat’s off to them, and the hundreds of incredible artists who contributed to the show.
Marquis: What do you hope visitors get out of the Omega Mart experience?
Brinkerhoff: We want to ignite your imagination. We want to create a deep and powerful journey that brings guests to a place of wonder, amazement, and self-reflection. You get there through a wildly meandering series of rooms and experiences beginning with a tripped out grocery story that is almost normal, until you look a little closer. From the store, you’ll find yourself launched into myriad other worlds - a parallel dimension.
We say “sell ‘em candy and give ‘em medicine.” You know, we want you to be happy and feel like you got something unique and valuable when you fork over some of your hard earned cash. And in that sense, there’s something for everybody, whether you're soaking up the jaw-dropping immersive art or diving into the multiple storylines. We want you to come for the spectacular and wondrous, and stay for the mysterious and meaningful.
In the case of Omega Mart, it’s all about The Source: the source of our creativity, the source of our humanity, the source of our food and possessions, the source of our desires, the source of our light, and the source of our darkness. It’s all about The Source.
Marquis: What are some of your favorite products featured at Omega Mart?
Brinkerhoff: Well who doesn’t want to be caressed by our Sweet Whispers brand toilet paper? And I personally always prefer using my Plausible Deniability laundry detergent. But my favorite has to be the Nut Free Salted Peanuts. It’s 100% salt (Warning: It may contain peanuts.)
Marquis: How was working in Las Vegas on a project like this different than in Santa Fe?
Brinkerhoff: I think we’ve done work in 10 or 15 cities at this point. Most of that was early days temporary stuff that not a lot of people saw. One thing that’s amazing about Vegas is that there are tons and tons of artists, performers, and generally just brilliant creators. Because so many people think they know Vegas when they really just know The Strip, that gets overlooked a lot. We wanted to help shine a light on another side of Vegas, a more authentic and artistic side, which has this wonderful culture and creativity.
One thing that you learn doing work in a lot of different places is that there are artists and powerhouse creative geniuses literally everywhere. They are often undervalued, undersupported, and underrecognized. As a culture, we are so hungry for that creativity and authenticity. We hope that Meow Wolf and, more importantly, our business model can be a force of real and lasting change in the plight of the modern living artist. We don’t sell expensive art to rich people. We sell an affordable experience of art to millions of people. This democratizes the process of tastemaking, which allows everyone to determine what is good and valuable in art, not just the super elite.
It would be a shame for Meow Wolf to be the only group using this model to support artists. Fortunately, there appears to be a movement coming up around us. We are so proud and so thrilled to be innovators in this new chapter of the evolution of art.
Marquis: Why do you think Omega Mart has seen such a great and immediate response in Las Vegas?
Brinkerhoff: There’s what I can reason, and then there’s just the big mystery. First off, this show is just bonkers. There are combinations of artists, processes, technologies, and mediums that have never been combined before and at a completely unprecedented scale. It’s just got a gravity to it that is kind of undeniable. So I’d say that’s a good start. Our marketing team is really very good at what they do, too. A lot of artists hate the idea of marketing, but for us, everything, every desk in the office, every interaction with our guests, every aspect of our process and organization is part of the artwork. Meow Wolf doesn’t just make art, it is a work of art.
Another thing that’s helped: we work really hard to empower local artists and activate the community. We want our work to be an embraced piece of the social fabric of the city we are in. We do that because it feels right to us. When opening an exhibition in a pandemic, that local focus turned out to also be a really important way to establish an audience when there weren’t so many tourists in town.
At this point, we are seeing a lot of tourists in addition to locals. Why do they keep coming? I think it comes down to a hunger we all have regardless of where you’re from. We want authenticity. We desire to feel affirmed and elevated in our humanity. Art gives us that. When all of the A.I.s and bots take over, what will be left for us humans? I believe creativity is non-fungible; it’s our essence; it’s what we have to offer when everything else is stripped down. When you experience a monument to the creative spirit, such as a Meow Wolf exhibition or a great concert or whatever it may be, it testifies to who we are - the boundless flowing stream of dreams, stories, images, and ideas that all of us continually generate. I think it comes down to this; the experience is fun, new, and inspiring and that makes us feel good because it reminds us of what we already knew to be true about ourselves but might feel a bit disconnected from.
And then, there’s the big Mystery. Maybe we should just give all the credit to that. You really can’t take credit when something catches the collective zeitgeist. That’s not something you have control over. You just make work and hope that your channel is open and clear. And then maybe if you’re lucky you’ll make something that really connects with other people.
Marquis: How did Meow Wolf navigate opening its second installation in a time during the pandemic when many health and safety restrictions, including reduced capacity, were still in effect?
Brinkerhoff: Leading up to the opening, with so much still up in the air with health and safety restrictions, there was definitely some collective anxiety about opening when we did. But, we decided to lean into it by adding extra layers of safety for our guests and employees, making sure to communicate our efforts effectively as much as possible along the way. We were thrilled to see such strong visitorship and we’re confident that it’s due in large part to the hard work of our team in developing and implementing a rigorous health and safety plan.
Marquis: As a B-Corp, Meow Wolf makes a strong investment in its social impact. How is the company working to become a part of the Las Vegas community?
Brinkerhoff: Meow Wolf has always been about giving. From the early days where me and all the OG Meow Wolfers were giving countless hours, days, and years of our lives as volunteers, to the concerts and immersive experiences we gave to our community, to the countless volunteers, supporters, champions, and enthusiasts along the way, this thing was built on the spirit of generosity and doing something bigger than ourselves.
As the company grows and matures and we expand into new cities, we are dedicated to giving back to the communities we inhabit and being not only a good neighbor but a catalyst for positive social change. With that, we look for opportunities to support the art community and local organizations that provide for underserved and often marginalized communities.
Our outreach team in Las Vegas has worked really hard to forge new partnerships and get behind important causes. A few things we’re doing so far include: donating tickets, merchandise and auction items to non-profit groups and their fundraising efforts; providing monetary and in-kind donations and sponsorships to groups like Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada, the Indian Center of Las Vegas, The Animal Foundation and others; providing volunteer opportunities for our staff to work with organizations like Delivery with Dignity, Vegas Roots, Just One Project, Project150, and others; engaging artists on various community projects to make art more publicly accessible; and much more.
Marquis: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Brinkerhoff: Thank you for helping tell our story. We are dedicated to inspiring profound change in our culture, and I’m personally really grateful for your help in getting the word out.