Meet Kristi and Chiarra, board members for the Indie Sellers Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to providing education and support to all online creative indie sellers around the world. The Indie Sellers Guild got its start in 2022 while organizing the Etsy Strike, when about 17,000 shops put their Etsy storefronts on vacation mode, effectively preventing customers from shopping. In this week’s episode, Kristi and Chiarra will explain how “reserves” are having a negative impact on small businesses and they will tell us how we can support Etsy sellers and the Indie Sellers Guild. Also: an audio essay from Angela. And Amanda dissects the quandary of Meow Wolf: Can creativity be commoditized and profitable, while still ethical?
Find the Indie Sellers Guild on IG: @indiesellersguild
Join the Indie Sellers Guild
Participate in the Market Research Study: https://indiesellersguild.org/survey
Listen to the Etsy-sodes (episodes 90-93) anywhere you stream this show, or at clotheshorsepodcast.com
Additional reading about Meow Wolf:
“Can an Art Collective Become the Disney of the Experience Economy?” Rachel Monroe, The New York Times Magazine.
“As the Experience Economy Booms, Meow Wolf Raises $158 Million to Expand Its Footprint Across America,” Sarah Cascone, ArtNet.
“State of the Union,” Alex DeVore, Santa Fe Reporter.
“Why Meow Wolf Coming to Phoenix Is Worrisome,” Erin Joyce, Hyperallergic.
“Union Busting at Meow Wolf: Workers File Unfair Labor Practice Suit,” Annie Levin, Observer.
“What Happened When a Trippy Art Collective Hit It Big—Then Unionized,” Adele Oliveira, The New Republic.
“Meow Wolf complaints are piling up as new name joins Denver lawsuit,” John Wenzel, The Denver Post.
“Meow Wolf Is Being Sued by Former Employees for Unfair Labor Practices,” Zachary Small, Hyperallergic.
It’s time for an annual tradition: small business audio essays! Submit your story by 11/1 via email: [email protected]
Include your name, pronouns, and IG handle.
If you want to share your opinion/additional thoughts on the subjects we cover in each episode, feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording: [email protected]
Or call the Clotheshorse hotline: 717.925.7417
Welcome to Clotheshorse, the podcast that gets really fired up thinking about the intersection between art and capitalism.
I’m your host, Amanda and this is episode 181, part two of two in a conversation with Kristi and Chiarra, board members of the Indie Sellers Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to providing education and support to all online creative indie sellers around the world. Today we will be talking about “reserves” and how they make it even harder to survive as a small business selling on Etsy. And they will tell us how we can support Etsy sellers and the Indie Sellers Guild!
Before we jump into that, let’s listen to an audio essay from Angela.
Thank you, Angela for starting a really important conversation. I want to start by saying something really, really important here: we cannot replace our fast fashion overconsumption habit with shopping secondhand. Overconsuming secondhand stuff is overconsuming stuff. And the gas we use driving around from store to store to buy more stuff has an impact. The shipping and packaging of all of the stuff we bought online–even if it was secondhand–has an impact. And the reality is that we have to do the work on ourselves to disconnect from this need for so much stuff.
That’s not a glamorous story, is it? It certainly doesn’t sell clothing, new or otherwise. And in fact, it’s not the narrative of most of the “sustainable fashion” world right now. It’s always like “what is the future of sustainable fashion?” with the caveat that whatever that future is MUST involve people getting wealthy off of continuing to sell us more stuff than we need, whether that’s the executives at a fast fashion brand selling us so-called recycled fabrics or the CEOs of ThredUp and Poshmark. It’s always about the shopping. But buying into so-called “sustainable fashion,” means that we don’t have to give up the shopping habit, do that very, VERY hard work on ourselves…and we get to feel really virtuous in comparison to all of the SHEIN customers out there.
There are about 9 million things about social media that annoy me. And there are easily 100 things that I encounter in a daily basis as Clotheshorse that really bug me. When I’m extra tired or burned out, it makes me want to throw my phone in a river.
This list of things that annoy me include people who DM to literally google answers for them. People who send me super long messages that take me 20 minutes to respond to (including research) and then never acknowledge receipt of my message. Companies who reach out saying they are interested in working with me on sustainability projects, but then three emails deep reveal that they are just looking for free marketing on my podcast. Brands who want access to my community, but don’t want to pay for it (but are happy to give me a discount code so I can also buy stuff from them). People who don’t read the DAMN CAPTIONS on my posts and then ask a question that is answered by the caption.
These are annoying, right? But nothing annoys me more, and I’m talking straight up nails on a chalkboard here, then when people respond to a post with something like “I haven’t bought new clothes since high school and I’m now 107 years old.” Or “I can’t ever imagine buying 70 garments in one year. What is wrong with people?” “I sew all of my clothes and I can’t understand why everyone else can’t too.”
That kind of quasi virtuousness kills me. Because we’re all just people out here doing our best, and it is so hard sometimes. I mean, I’m literally wearing underwear that I bought five years ago because I can’t afford to buy underwear from any of the so-called “sustainable brands” out there, which aren’t even that great when I look into them. So I’ve decided to wear pilly faded underwear until they disintegrate into dust.
No one gets extra credit points from me when they show up to shame others with their virtuousness. To be completely honest, I’ve been dealing with an eating disorder since I was a teenager. And I didn’t think it was an eating disorder for decades because everyone else around me was doing the same thing. It was almost competitive to see how little one could eat, and judge others when they gave in and ate an actual full ass meal. The less you ate, the more virtuous you were. Imagine feeling superior because you only had an apple and a Diet Coke for lunch, while your friend had protein and vegetables and probably felt a lot better physically than you have in months? I can’t help but see a lot of the fallacies of the sustainable fashion world as diet culture with a rebrand.
Think about it: if you only buy secondhand, you’re doing “better” than others. Tell me how that isn’t different from “only” drinking Diet Coke or “only” eating Snackwells. Instead you should be unpacking why you need to switch your shopping behavior to the diet version and changing up your consumption habits . But diet culture always sells the idea of a quick fix. Cut out carbs, only eat cabbage (yes, my mom did that cabbage soup diet when I was a kid), switch to diet soda, take this pill, give up fat, blah blah blah. Diet culture is so wildly profitable for so many people. And this same “quick fix” to sustainability line of thinking is also very financially lucrative, too.
Why does doing the right thing have to be a reason to feel better than others? And to be clear, that’s a thing. In fact, brands leverage that shit to get you to buy stuff. With luxury brands, it’s the idea of economic superiority. In the realm of sustainable fashion, it’s the idea of superior virtue. The idea of a “conscious collection” is H+M’s way of subtly telling you that buying stuff from that collection makes you more conscious than the rest of the unconscious masses.
I don’t have answers here, but I’ll say this: we have to skip the virtue and using that as means of judging others and feeling superior. We have to meet others where they are. If you haven’t bought new clothes since 1923, congratulations. You picked well, your body never changed, and your lifestyle has remained consistent. The rest of us will be out here unpacking our relationship with stuff and shopping, the behavior patterns that have been hammered into our heads since we were five years old in the Barbie section at Toys R Us. It’s a lot of work and there is no quick fix. Fortunately we’ll all be here to support one another as we do the work. We will come out on the other side of it with a new perspective that will lead to significant change in this world. And we will be doing it together!!!
Last weekend marked seven years of marriage for Dustin and me. And while we were like “should we do something for our anniversary since we’re moving in a few months and money is kinda tight?” Ultimately we realized that we SHOULD do something because we spend most of our time working these days. So we planned a fun weekend in Dallas, which is about a three and half hour drive from Austin. We finally made the pilgrimage to Southfork Ranch, where the outdoor scenes of the 70s/80s prime time soap opera Dallas were filmed. Dallas is a big deal in our household, as we have watched it in its entirety 3 or 4 times at this point. We also went thrifting, ate some really amazing Taiwanese food, drove around and took photos of cool mid century architecture (Dallas has SO MANY cool buildings), visited the site where JFK was assassinated, and we went to the new Meow Wolf experience, The Real Unreal, at a mall outside of Dallas called Grapevine Mills.
Some of you are familiar with the term “Meow Wolf,” others are not. So let’s steal the wikipedia description: “Meow Wolf is an American arts and entertainment company that creates large-scale interactive and immersive art installations.”
Wow, that sounds really dry, but it is accurate. It began as a sort of loose arts collective in the early 2010s in Santa Fe, NM, some might even call them “anarchic.” They pooled their money and rented out an empty hair salon, using that space to talk, brainstorm ideas, and work on projects. They held dances at the VFW. They doused themselves in glitter and had “monster battles” downtown. But most importantly, it was a hub, a community for creative young people who felt disenfranchised by Santa Fe, by modern life, by the world. Community was really the core of it all. Over time, a core group of leaders sort of emerged:
Vince Kadlubek–who wasn’t really much of an artist, but loved hanging out around creative people,
Sean Di Ianni–a RISD graduate who had moved to Santa Fe for a job and was definitely feeling lonely until he found the Meow Wolf crew,
Caity Kennedy–an artist whose work (according to the New York Times Magazine) “teeters on the boundary between the beautiful and the grotesque)“
Matt King–a painter,
goggle-wearing Benji Geary, Emily Montoya, and Corvas Brinkerhoff.
Throughout this segment, I’m going to be citing several sources, but one that I recommend you all read because it’s just so comprehensive is Rachel Monroe’s 2019 piece for the New York Times Magazine, “Can an Art Collective Become the Disney of the Experience Economy?
From the very beginning, there is this tension amongst the group around what place money has in this whole equation, what the long term goals of Meow Wolf should be, if goals are even necessary. Kadlubek and Brinkerhoff felt that growth and some semblance of financial success should be part of the plan. Everyone else was kinda like, “I don’t know can’t we just make art?” And at the same time, they all felt both part of the art world and kinda rejected by it. Because they weren’t an art gallery, right? What they were doing couldn’t be commodified, could it?
Caity Kennedy told Rachel Monroe, “We were frustrated by lack of access to consistent opportunity, and to agency. We work collectively, we make things you can’t buy, that you can’t really document.” Because that’s the thing about working as an artist in this century. You have a few options if you want to make a living from it:
- Sell your work via galleries (which means, painting, sculpture, things that people can buy and keep).
- Sell it on your own at markets, on Etsy, Instagram, etc. Maybe even create lines of products out of it, like stickers, pins, tshirts, etc.
- Or you can become a commercial artist, selling our talent to the advertising agency or retailers.
But how do you sell an experience?
The group was invited to create an immersive art installation at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts. They raised $50,000 to build The Due Return, a 2 story, 70 foot long ship. They raised the money primarily via Kickstarter. More than 100 artists worked on the project, and none of them were paid. I mean, none of the artists of Meow Wolf were ever paid, and they all worked other jobs to keep themselves fed and housed. The thing is…visitors to The Due Return (and btw, more than 25,000 people visited) were asked to donate $10. And the group had amassed $125,000 from this. It was all stuffed in a shoe box under Kadlubek’s bed. No one knew what to do with it. Some members suggested that they just burn the money in a big anti-capitalist bonfire. But others were already wondering if being paid for their work could be an option. Because they were already finding that they were working so hard, being sapped of their creativity and energy…and for what?
Kadlubek was starting to think that there was a way to make a living off of this work, even if it wasn’t the traditional “art sold at a gallery.”
Since the late 90s, there has been a lot of conversation about an emerging “experience economy.” The thinking behind this made sense: people had kinda maxed out on the amount of stuff that they could buy. How could the economy as a whole continue to grow if we were already overshopped? Well it turns out that we might have been overshopped in the 90s, but things were about to get even more shoppy and wasteful in this century.
The experience economy argued that there was plenty of money to be made and jobs to be created by giving people experiences: virtual reality, experiential art, live performances, etc. And this was pretty true, but this idea didn’t really pick up momentum until the 2010s, when social media made it easy to share your experiences as they happened, making others want to go spend money on those experiences, too. There was this whole belief, repeated time and time again by pretty much every media outlet, that millennials prioritized experiences over stuff (I kinda call bullshit on that), but then again, they sure were posting a lot of well curated photos of “experiences” on Instagram.
We start to see retailers adding experiential moments in to their stores, like photobooths and hangout zones, or a coffee bar or even a real bar! We see companies like Glossier dropping major money to build out retail spaces that were designed to be shared on Instagram. I went to an AllBirds store in Soho that was like 90% Instagram photo spots and 10% shoes. And we see literal chains like the Museum of Ice Cream and Color Factory that pair installation art with Instagram photo ops…and of course, a gift shop.
The founders of Meow Wolf felt that they had a place in the experience economy.
In 2014, DiIanni and Kadlubek attended a business accelerator workshop in Albuquerque. They learned how to write a business plan and how to pitch to investors. They won the pitch competition and the prize was $25,000. They used part of that $25,000 to take the six founders to Disneyland, where they hung out every day from open to close, studying the way the space itself shaped the experience for visitors.
They wanted to merge the idea of art and Disneyland back in Santa Fe. But that kinda thing costs a lot of money. You need a space, materials, equipment, safety inspections, and so much more. The Meow Wolf team was kinda in luck, because there was someone in Santa Fe with really deep pockets: George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones. Kadlubek pitched the concept to him, and he agreed to buy a bowling alley, spend close to $3 million to renovate it, and then rent it out to Meow Wolf. The team raised the rest of the money it needed via Kickstarter, and other Santa Fe patrons with deep pockets.
And now Meow Wolf was a full time job, a real business that paid the artists for their work. 125 artists were working full time, 12-14 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week. And yet the project was still behind schedule and over budget. So Kadlubek had to go out looking for more money. I love this passage from Rachel Monroe’s article “Wound incredibly tight, he became particularly touchy about disruptive construction sounds during his walk-throughs with potential investors — and so, during those final, hectic months of the build-out, everyone would periodically have to stop working and look cheery for the venture capitalists.”
Uh oh….did someone say “venture capitalists?”
Yeah, we know what that means: that money comes with strings attached and those strings are constant, exponential growth and maximum profitability.
We have seen how that has impacted all kinds of start ups, including Etsy. Ahhhh, wait is this all coming together right now?
How would this impact Meow Wolf?
Well the Santa Fe project, House of Eternal Return, was an immediate hit. In the first year, it made THREE TIMES its projectedt revenue. It was the most instagrammed place in New Mexico. Those venture capitalists must have been pretty happy.
Except…that’s never how it works when you take that kind of money. And you have to know what you want to do next. And you have to be talking about it an awful lot, all while asking for more money. And Kadlubek had that kind of drive. He told Rachel Monroe, “I felt like it was really important for us to announce a big project and then keep announcing more projects to build the brand, to build the perception that we’re a leader in this emerging industry, because I knew there were a lot of different opportunities for investors.”
And so there was pressure from all sides, even from within–to keep growing and expanding.
In 2017, Meow Wolf reorganized itself as a B corporation, with Kadlubek as CEO. This is around the time I saw a job listing on Linkedin for someone to run their merchandise/souvenir business and I was like, “hmmmm…is this good or bad?”
In 2019, the company raised $158 million from 87 investors, which is not an insignificant amount of money. If you’re taking that much investment, you better be growing FAST!
And so the new projects kept coming:
- In 2021, Omega Mart opened in Las Vegas.
- Later that year, Convergence Station opened in Denver
- The Real Unreal (here in Texas) opened this year.
- And a new space is under construction in Houston.
Other projects were announced and then dropped, including a hotel in Phoenix and another space in DC.
And like a lot of projects….errr…corporations….that pair art with big money, things start to get weird. And even a little controversial. In 2019, Erin Joyce wrote for art publication Hyperallergic, ”The problem with Meow Wolf is that it is a supreme act of late stage capitalism disguised through the collective’s mantra of the underdog as art savior.”
Okay, so let’s take a time out here so I can explain why I was motivated to talk about Meow Wolf this week: so my experience of the new space was not good.
- Overcrowded: a problem in an experience that requires spaces and time to explore all of the details.
- Weird slick Disneyland vibes
- Humongous gift shop
It all felt weird and disappointing. We went out for indian food afterwards and we talked about it. What was this “enshittification” of Meow Wolf that we had just experienced.
“I have a bad feeling about it,” I told Dustin. “Like there’s VC money involved.” I mean, of course there was VC money involved. But the experience had that vibe, maximum profit, cutting corners. Because one thing I had noticed is that a lot of the installations were copies of those in Santa Fe. And there were a lot less interactive details. And some parts were just a mural and a blinking light. Not a lot of detail. It all felt off.
And I hadn’t read Rachel Monroe’s article yet, but it turned out I was right. She wrote in 2019:
Meow Wolf’s artists are also having to familiarize themselves with concepts like value engineering. “Not every object has to be a custom sculpture,” Kadlubek said. “Not every square inch has to be interactive.”
In other words: how do you make art more profitable? You make it simpler, scalable…and in that move, you will probably make it less impactful and authentic.
But back to that indian restaurant…so we sat at the table discussing this and I thought, “let’s look at the Glassdoor reviews.” Seriously guys, that’s the best place to start a research journey.
And boy did that start the research journey for me:
“They have fought against the union at every turn, spending millions on lawyers and bragging about sales numbers while telling employees they can’t afford to pay a living wage. They lie. A lot. They’re constantly being sued by former and current employees.”
Um yeah, I’ll share the articles in the show notes, but indeed, Meow Wolf has been sued by former and current employees for racial and gender discrimination and unfair pay practices. And yeah, Meow Wolf tried really hard to shut down employees’ attempt at unionizing in all the classic union busting ways, going as far as listing a new HR director position that included the job responsibility of “effectively manage labor union relationships and implement effective union avoidance campaigns in union-free parts of the organization.”
Here’s another Glassdoor review:
“Those in charge have completely forsaken the ideals Meow Wolf was founded on. It’s profit over people now when it could have been a unicorn company that actually paid artists to make art. The pandemic was used as a smokescreen to gut the company of full-time artists. Now they’re just like any other “content” company hiring contractors to save a buck. They don’t respect their union currently. They don’t respect their artists. They don’t respect their roots. I wish them all the best and hope for the sake of the artists that have worked on exhibits past and future that they continue to be successful, but it would be even better if they could get their heads on straight about how they treat their employees.”
And I will tell you, Meow Wolf has changed a lot over the past few years. Like, kind of in a really short time! Leadership from companies like Disney and Viacom were brought in. In, fact the current CEO comes from media conglomerate Viacom. The founding team of six are still involved in one way or another, with the exception of Matt King, who took his own life in 2022. And I just had a good cry today reading his remembrance on the Meow Wolf website.
So the story of Meow Wolf (so far) raises important questions, and ones I don’t fully have answer to:
- Can art be profitable?
- Can creativity be commoditized and profitable, while still ethical?
- Can art and capitalism live in harmony?
I just don’t know. But the quandaries raised by Meow Wolf are not dissimilar from those of Etsy: can a profitable, successful company form based on many individual makers and small businesses? Can community co-exist within a corporate structure? Can business at that scale truly remain ethical and thoughtful?
So far, the answer seems to be no. It becomes even more problematic as the scale of the companies increase, making the individual artists and makers seem even smaller and less significant. We have seen it play out time and time again with many startups and platforms. It seems good…until that drive for constant growth and ever increasing profits ruins it all. What are your thoughts on this? Drop me a line at [email protected].
Okay, with that…let’s get into my conversation with Kristi and Chiarra!