One Good Idea: In Santa Fe, an artist actually leads city planning

By Brian Corrigan

Vince Kadlubek is helping to redefine the role of the artist in the community. Kadlubek is one of the 135 artists behind the Santa Fe, N.M. mind-bending, award-winning art experience “House of Eternal Return” at the Meow Wolf Art Complex. He is also the chairman of the City’s Planning Commission.

Its common to find architects, developers, realtors, business consultants and community leaders on these boards. It’s rare to find artists in this mix but our communities need them now more than ever.

Planning commissions make decisions regarding the land use, design of the environment and transportation. They decide how our shared infrastructure supports, or should support, our daily needs.

These decisions are the cornerstone to our shared economic, mental and physical wellbeing. They’re important decisions with serious consequences. The outcomes can limit growth or excel growth; decrease safety or increase safety; favor certain groups or create opportunities for all to succeed.

How we plan and develop our communities matter. And we need everyone to take a stake in it. Artists can help with this.

Art and artists have the ability to bring people of different backgrounds together. They are good at asking the right questions that lead to finding our common ground. A skill that is important to support the type of civic engagement that helps us visualize an improved future for all.


A look inside Meow Wolf's adventurous House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
A look inside Meow Wolf’s adventurous House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Artists also have a knack for making something out of nothing. They are good at taking overlooked resources and transforming them into something that’s loved. Be it a mixed media sculpture, a house or a neighborhood.

But not everyone agrees that artists are a neighborhood asset. Some label artists as gentrifiers. They argue that when artists and galleries move into a neighborhood they make it such a desirable place that they push low-income families, and the very artists that made the place desirable, out. It’s called the SoHo Effect.

Last month the Los Angeles Times reported of heated protest between longtime residents in the Boyle Heights neighborhood and the art spaces that have moved in. The protestors are fighting gentrification by leaving mock eviction notices on the galleries—sending a strong message that they’re not welcomed neighbors.

But is this what we should be fighting?

A report, “Lost in Place,” published by City Observatory, argues that concentrated poverty is a bigger problem than gentrification. There are twice as many Americans living in poor neighborhoods now than in 1970. The data shows that poor neighborhoods displace people; poverty is spreading; and gentrification is rare.

The study reveals that the solution is found in our neighborhoods and its in the form of integration. The data shows that when income integration happens in neighborhoods, people have a better chance at lifting themselves out of their current condition to climb the economic ladder. The battle we face, as Americans, is we’re increasingly more segregated—both online and offline.

In Santa Fe, Meow Wolf has taken intentional steps to think about neighborhood development in a more wholistic and inclusive way. It is even apparent in how the team was formed to create the business.

Kadlubek glued together the likes of George R.R. Martin, creator of the hit series “Game of Thrones,” with city government, realtors, business people, community members and fresh artistic talent to fund, construct and keep Meow Wolf moving forward. No small feat for a concept that is hard to explain to people because it is so different from anything else.

Future plans for the House of Eternal Return’s Siler neighborhood include an Arts + Creativity Center proposed for the Siler Road Public Works Yard. The center’s vision promises it’ll be a place to cultivate talent, retain young talent, enhance Santa Fe’s diversity, strengthen the local arts economy and contribute revenue for local and state government.

But even with this momentum, people feel the struggle. A day after the opening this year, March 19, a sign appeared outside Meow Wolf that read, “Welcome, Gentrifiers.” The sign was the work of Hernan Gomez, a local landscaper and laborer. His post on Facebook claiming the sign commented on his struggle to make ends meet in the place he was born.

It’s no secret that we have a lot of difficult work ahead of us: fighting poverty, increasing economic integration, creating opportunities and fixing our neighborhoods to work for everyone. But I’m hopeful—we have to be. It’s a challenge we all need to figure out together. And that is why I’m excited about Mayor Javier Gonzales’ choice of putting Kadlubek in the driver’s seat of the planning commission. If past success is an indicator, he’s good at bringing different people together to create new realities.


  1. Very interesting pick. The Golden boy of the moment. Last person I would pick, given his plate is heaping high to start with. Will be interesting.

  2. It could work but Boulder, where the planning commission still has power. But I couldn’t tell you who is on Denver’s, or if there even is one.

  3. I agree in Boulder. The city has put BMoCA at the very center of current (and big) decisions it is making about the future of its downtown. The museum has a seat at the table and it’s likely to benefit everyone.


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