Creating Immersive Art Experiences That Are More Than an Instagram Photo Op

Art popups have been a thing for a while now, but we’re seeing a trend of art installations that are designed to be “just another millennial photo op.”

People may be enticed to go somewhere to take a great photo. They may post it to Instagram and you’ll get your social cred. But will they stay after the photo has been posted to Instagram? Will they recommend it to their friends? Not if there’s nothing else available at your event that’s designed for the present, and not simply for a #latergram.

Using the incredibly immersive experience of Meow Wolf as our guide, let’s explore the ways that the experiential marketing world can create art experiences that are so much more than a photo opportunity.

The collaboration of artists is something we support, and we’ve seen the incredible results first hand in our world through art installations such as Meow Wolf. Located in Santa Fe, Meow Wolf is a place where you can feel the energy and passion of dozens of artists, all working towards the same goal: to display their hearts and souls for the world to see, and inspire creativity.

The 150 artists that worked on the “gallery” (it’s more than a gallery) titled it “The House of Eternal Return” and described it as a massive, immersive, multimedia installation. Since that description may not help, one of the artists involved mentioned she’ll often start listing things the installations are similar to: “‘A haunted house, a choose your own adventure, a dreamscape, etc.”

Meow Wolf is a visually appealing journey with a striking variety of themes, designs, and brilliant color that can even hold the attention span of a modern screen addict. There are clearly areas of the experience that look stunning on Instagram.

But we’re here to talk about what makes Meow Wolf more than a selfie backdrop. We have some simple suggestions for taking your art experiences to the next level:

-Allow Artists to Lead
-Tell an Entertaining Story
-Make it Highly Interactive
-Remove Limits

We’d love to see more creative spaces designed and led by the artists themselves. Using Meow Wolf as an example, the partnership of an artist community and the primary investor of “Game of Thrones” writer George R.R. Martin has led to fantastic results. Martin understands the value in letting people tell their stories unfiltered (at last count, his epic story has led over 1,000 characters to their graves, including many main characters). Martin paid for the space, which is in a former bowling alley, made some improvements, and then charged a well-below market rent to allow Meow Wolf to make their mark. With no restraints on the artists, they were free to take the experience and story in any direction they chose.

The experience does have a compelling story, that leads visitors through the gates and provides an incentive to see and explore more. While we won’t ruin the full story for you, we can give a brief synopsis. You walk through the front door and see a Victorian home, owned by the family “the Seligs”. The house is filled with family details that help you piece together the story, including a child’s journal, and clues to secret passageways and rooms, with the story veering into multi-dimensional territory. The story is a big factor in the amount of time people spend in the space, attempting to connect the dots and discover tiny details that the average visitor might miss. Providing a theme for your art experience, and a simple storyline can move visitors to focus beyond the photo-worthy exterior and immerse themselves in the present. It would be difficult to attempt photographing the journey as your eye bounces to minute details and you wrap yourself in the story. And a large percentage of the Meow Wolf experience would not be worth an Instagram. There are certainly rooms that make for a great backdrop, but you’ll find yourself drawn into dark rooms to discover story elements, and that’s what makes it such an immersive experience.

As odd as it may sound, the difficulty to document a majority of the space for social media is what visitors love about The House of Eternal Return. They’re simply engaged in an experience with friends or family. 400,000 visitors came through the Meow Wolf space in its first year. Those visitors were also drawn in by the ability to touch and interact with everything in the space. A roped off art exhibit is not as engaging as a room with a preserved wooly mammoth, inviting you to play its bones like a giant musical instrument. There’s an escape room feel that encourages visitors to find a combination to the safe, or open the fridge and check out what the family has inside. There’s a maze of psychedelic trees to explore. Around every corner, there’s a surprise waiting to be played with and touched. You’re inspired to open new doors, solve mysteries, and play music. It’s comfortable yet eerie, and it’s totally different than most art experiences.

jen meow wolf

What’s the next step for the art world? Are experiences such as the Museum of Ice Cream and the Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama at the Broad in LA overplayed? One concern is the limitations of time and space, especially for the Infinity Mirrors. The max time a viewer is allowed to remain in the room is 45 seconds, just enough time to snap a photo and revel in the brilliance of a room that feels boundless. The docents even encourage visitors to have their phones ready to snap a photo since time is so limited. Is that enough to convince someone to come to the Broad, especially if they know that they’re only going to have 45 seconds? It’s possible. But where Meow Wolf excels is a visitor is not restricted by time or rules. It’s a free play, seemingly endless space where the only limits are your imagination. That’s a draw, considering most art experiences can cost $20 a person or more. Visitors would rather explore, rather than wait in lines for an awesome photo. If your art experience can provide both, that’s what the visitor is looking for.

What does all of this mean for lovers of art, and brands eager to contribute to art experiences? On theMeow Wolf side, they are setting their sights on other cities, with Denver and Las Vegas experiences in the works. We want to see more, and so does the community.

On the brand side, we encourage brands to work with artists, but allow the artists to keep their ideas and creativity. A collaborative process can’t be forced and controlled. A highly branded experience with little to no input from the artists will not be seen as authentic. Work together on the story. Make sure that the artists are comfortable with the interactive elements. It must be a partnership.

Brands can provide opportunities that engage beyond the visual. Food brands can offer a space to taste products in a highly visual setting. Alcohol brands could have a bar in one of the rooms. Technology brands can incorporate a space to showcase a product in line with the art experience’s theme. There are so many ways for brands to contribute, just make sure that it’s a contribution, and not a directive. Clever marketing campaigns can be highly successful, but an authentically immersive experience will go so much further towards creating lifelong brand advocates.