Han Santana-Sayles '15

Curating Mind-bending Collaborations

As the director of artist collaboration for Meow Wolf, Han Santana-Sayles ’15 says she is “essentially, a curator.”

But the company she works for and the spaces it designs are more difficult to define. Forbes has coined Meow Wolf an “immersive arts innovator”; The New York Times called it a “tourism juggernaut”; and the Santa Fe Reporter, the alternative newsweekly where Meow Wolf began in 2008 as an informal collective of DIY artists and opened an official entertainment venue in 2016, labeled it the “Santa Fe arts mega-corp.”

“I describe it often as a narrative-driven, immersive art exhibit,” says Santana-Sayles, at the same time admitting those words don’t necessarily draw something immediately to mind. “But,” she adds, “it does kind of evade descrip - tion because it is a lot of different things … a new type of industry, which is a model that hasn’t existed exactly like it before.”

Think art exhibit meets museum meets storytelling experience — with a sci-fi or fantastical theme. Visitors can interact with almost every element in some way, such as opening a refrigerator and walking through it to an interdimensional travel agency or crawling through a fireplace and ending up in a large Mastodon cave.

“Describing it kind of helps [people] grasp that there’s a narrative element to it,” Santana-Sayles says, but “it’s more fun for me to just show them what I’m talking about.”

She is well-suited to share narrative elements after having majored in comparative literature with a focus in feminist and gender studies at CC. That’s part of her job when engaging with collaborating artists — creatives who work in a guest capacity to develop their own unique rooms, dioramas, murals, sculpture projects, and the like.

In addition to maintaining relationships with artists, her responsibilities include compiling recommendations of artists for the creative directors to review for a variety of projects, while keeping in mind the creative values Meow Wolf holds.

“We look for work that’s kaleidoscopic — so, colorful, playful, layered, and multifaceted. Work that draws people in and expresses some kind of depth,” she says. “We look for work that’s maximal,” which she adds doesn’t mean that every square inch of surface is covered — though it can be — but that the work is detailed and thoughtful.

Next is “mind-bending.”

“One of the tenets of Meow Wolf is that we’re trying to challenge our guests to get outside their own boxes and parameters that they have for themselves and question the world in a different way,” Santana-Sayles says. “So things that are mind-bending are really interesting and important to us.”

And finally, inclusive — in a variety of ways.

For nearly four years, Santana-Sayles has been working primarily on the third-to-open Meow Wolf location, which debuted in summer 2021 in Denver. (The second-to-open site is in Las Vegas, with two more in the works for Washington, D.C., and Phoenix.) She’s proud of the Denver project because it involved predomi - nately Colorado-based artists: Of the 130 artists, 120 are Coloradans.

“It also was really important to me that [Denver] would be the most diverse exhibit and project that Meow Wolf has ever done,” she says.

And it is.

“More than half of the exhibit is women-identifying folks. Around a third of the participants overall are people of color, and around a third are LGBTQ,” Santana-Sayles says. “I’m so proud of all the artists that we’ve been able to engage with and they’ve made incredibly brilliant work. It’s not just because it needs to be ‘diverse,’ it’s just that it makes the exhibit so much better.”

Story by Kirsten Akens '96; originally published in the Colorado College Bulletin, Winter 2022. Photo by Allyson Lupovich, courtesy of Meow Wolf. Video by Julia Fuller.

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