ASK AN ARTS PROFESSIONAL – HAN SANTANA-SAYLES

ASK AN ARTS PROFESSIONAL
HAN SANTANA-SAYLES
MEOW WOLF

DECEMBER, 2020

Han in front of installation by Pip and Pop. Han curated the work for Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal return. Photo by Allyson Lupovich

WHERE DO YOU WORK AND WHAT IS YOUR TITLE? CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION?

I’m the Director of Artist Collaboration at Meow Wolf.
Meow Wolf is an immersive art experience. We’re a creative company and our primary area of specialization is building large, immersive art experiences. MW started about thirteen years ago as a DIY collective. It was a group of kids who just rented out these big warehouse spaces, did whatever they wanted and painted on the walls, etc Gradually, they started hosting different shows and experiences and they started getting hired by other museums to build these immersive zones that were essentially made out of trash in the beginning.
After collaborating on dozens of projects together they were hired by the Contemporary Art Museum in Santa Fe to put on any show they wanted and they decided to build a life size ship called the Due Return. The concept of this project was that it was an alien ship that had crash landed on Earth and you could explore the ship and all the rooms inside of it.
It was so successful that they realized there could be a whole market for these really wild, immersive art experiences. Our first and only exhibit which is called the House of Eternal Return is coming up on its five year anniversary. It was built in a converted bowling alley which was partially funded by George R. R. Martin, who is also our landlord.
The concept behind The House of Eternal Return is you are essentially a visitor in this Victorian house where something strange has happened. There’s warped walls and notes from the previous family about some kind of disappearance of one of the children along with references to a larger cosmic event You’re invited to explore this world and you’ll find things are not as they seem.
Our mission is to inspire creativity in people’s lives through art, exploration, and play so that imagination will transform our worlds.

“Kaleidoscape”, Meow Wolf’s Dark Ride at Elitch Gardens. Han curated Denver-based artist Katie Caron who collaborated with the MW team to create a psychedelic pond. Photo by Kate Russell

WHAT IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION IN YOUR OWN WORDS?

I’m the Director of artist Collaboration for Meow Wolf— I facilitate our relationships with our external collaborators. The way MW works is that we have our in-house artists. For every project, we collaborate with a dozen or hundreds of external artists in whatever location where we’re building an exhibit. In Denver we have 115 collaborators, 110 are Colorado-based artists. We found the majority through a CO-only open call. I act as a resource for them through our whole work pipeline of initial contact, design, fabrication, and post-opening.
I’ve never worked for a company that’s as dynamic as this one is. We’ve really narrowed our focus into specializing in these immersive experiences. It’s a dream factory where we are building worlds that you would only see in video games or movies or in set design, but they’re permanent and people can actually be in them. We live in a strange place between entertainment and art–the fine art world. I really think we’re on the line there–a lot of fine art folks roll their eyes at us and view it as less than. Maybe they just don’t think the aesthetic matches, but we work with a lot of fine artists and folks across many industries which we love to do!

“Special Guest” by artists Molly Bounds, Laura Shill, Dmitri Obergfell, Diego Rodriguez-Warner and Derrick Velasquez, curated by Han. Photo by Robert King.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HURDLES ASSOCIATED WITH YOUR WORK?

We’re a certified B corporation, which is kind of a cross between a nonprofit and for-profit. We still have very strict standards in equity, governance, the economy, environment, and our workers. One of the standards we have for that is we want to hold close and make sure we promote local economies and local artists. We also want to have as diverse a pool as possible when we go into new cities..
One of primary challenges is letting folks know that our intentions are right, and knowing that each city has its own long and vast history before we get there. We try to be responsible in how we’re curating and not gentrifying places. We want to truly bring new opportunities for artists in each city and educate ourselves on the history of that city so that we understand what we’re doing.
The convergence of super quick timelines and trying to have a thoughtful collaboration with artists in that city is a challenge.

Another hard part is building trust with artists in each city and our request for proposals process because we can’t work with everyone.
I’ll go out and introduce myself to a bunch of people and build really good connections, but at the end of the day if the Creative Director decides the proposal isn’t right for the space–just the fact that I’ve built all these relationships with people doesn’t mean they’re going to get into the exhibit. So trying to have that fine line between trying not to promise things to people and maintaining enthusiastic professional connections is tricky. Relationships are the best and the most difficult part of my job, but I’m sure that’s how it is for most curators.

WHAT ARE THE MOST REWARDING OR FULFILLING PARTS OF YOUR WORK?

It’s relationships and getting to see young, emerging artists, which is essentially our focus on these collaborations, get to do projects that they’ve never done anything like before. Getting to see their work on a larger scale, doing things in their projects and immersive capacities through tech elements such as lighting and sound, and just having the space and budget that’s really good for them is awesome. It’s definitely the best part in getting to see them have larger potential for the projects. And getting to have friendships with different people is a huge benefit. Before covid, it was getting to travel and go to art fairs and meet people there to recruit for projects and collaborations. That was a very fun, adventurous lifestyle that’s come to a screeching halt!

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THINKING OF WORKING IN THE ARTS?

What I did after undergrad was work in a DIY space called Mountain Fold Books in Colorado Springs. I hosted hundred of events and shows; it was everything from gallery shows to poetry readings, queer open mics, to music and interesting small press books. So I don’t think there’s any direct path to working in the arts. It’s an interesting field in that you can follow your interests and find yourself specializing in something you didn’t realize. My job now is basically an artist relationship specialist. There was no way to actually get that skill other than being a community organizer, not by working for another large gallery.
My advice to younger people or people getting out of school is notice what your strengths are and lean into them; do them. I think I resisted for a long time. I wanted to be a creative person–I’m still a creative person, but what I’m good at is relationships and communication and helping people and listening. When I accepted that, I excelled more at it.
I’d also say that the actual experience you get is more important than the company you’re working for. So if you’re working for a high-end gallery who is not giving you meaningful work, then you should get out of there and go to a startup where you’ll get to figure everything out yourself. That is what will serve you–having skills, not any kind of name.

Han presented Meow Wolf’s Colorado-based open call seeking artists for the Meow Wolf Denver exhibit. Photo by Alex Guardia.

HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC CHANGED THE WAY YOU WORK?

I haven’t really found my stride in terms of the best way to network and meet people. I need to work more on that remotely because I was so strong at doing that in person. I’d go to a city with a pre-searched list of 10 points of contact through my network, word of mouth, etc. I was finding people who kept coming up again and again as prominent artists or organizers and going from there to find the plugs and connectors in their cities. That was incredibly successful and easy to weave together. Doing research remotely, it’s harder to get that sense and it’s hard to connect with people. It’s harder to build trust over Zoom or the phone. I’m still trying to find the best way to do that and build connections with people remotely. We haven’t opened a new project or initiated a launch of a new project, but we’re working on one now. I’m still trying to figure that out, but it’s hard to have that sense of connection with people online to build that excitement and energy. One thing I found to be really helpful was working with other digital artists. We did a project for Burning Man called the Infinite Playa–we built an online, immersive space. It was a beta project that never really launched properly, but it was a beautiful world with all these collaborators. One of them was a group called Pussy Krew. They’re so incredible to talk to and they’re really amazing artists and they said the digital reality has always been their reality–that’s their way of relating and connecting to people. It gave me optimism and hope that this was just another language I haven’t learned yet and they have tapped into this other world already. I want to look to more folks who’ve always done more online, digital world-building that feels more familiar and comfortable to them. It made me feel less depressed about this whole thing–that there’s another way to create these experiences, just not how we’ve experienced them before.

DO YOU HAVE ANY UPCOMING PROJECTS, PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL, THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PROMOTE? OR DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING THAT’S BEEN GETTING YOU THROUGH THE PANDEMIC IN TERMS OF MUSIC, MOVIES, BOOKS, ETC.?

The next thing for MW is the Las Vegas exhibit set to open in Feb. 2021. If it does open, it will be at small capacity due to restrictions. I’m really looking forward to reopening the House of Eternal Return. We’ve been working really hard on all these incredible upgrades. We’re working on more exhibits and projects, and we’ll probably add more within the exhibit before we re-open. It’s funny that these have been done since the summer and no one’s seen them, so it will be exciting for people when we re-open.


As for what’s been getting me through…I’ve been watching a lot of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. If you haven’t already, then start. At first I was mad at myself for not being as productive as I’d hoped to be, but I was listening to this interview on NPR with an educator who also has kids and they said that this year for school “we just want to pass”. That’s the goal. We are living through a worldwide pandemic and we need to set our expectations appropriately. Especially going into the winter, I’ve felt that in the past week, I’ve really felt that..It’s worse if you’re punishing yourself when you’re just trying to survive.
Hopefully by this time next year we’ll be in a different space. Take it easy and don’t pressure yourself.