Everything We Know About "The Real Unreal,” Meow Wolf’s Grapevine Exhibit

Everything We Know About "The Real Unreal,” Meow Wolf’s Grapevine Exhibit Main Photo

1 Jun 2023

Blog, News

We’re just over a month away from the grand opening of Meow Wolf’s Grapevine exhibition, The Real Unreal. Tickets are on sale and going fast for the July 14 debut, and the attraction is projected to bring a wealth of visitors into Grapevine. Last month, we published a closer look at the company itself: who they are and what they do. But we haven’t yet dug into the more important questions. 

We haven’t explained their why. 

Today, we’re taking a closer look at a once-secret project here in the City: how it came to be here, what it brings with it, and (of course) at least a few more details about the installation itself. While Meow Wolf’s brand identity tends toward the cryptic and absurdist, the artists behind the work are talented, thoughtful people. And nothing they do is without intention. Knowing that, it’s time to talk about Grapevine’s soon-to-be megahit destination attraction. 

Project Black Corinth: Under Wraps Since 2018 

Public news of the latest venture from Meow Wolf arrived in 2022, hitting Reddit message boards just ahead of a massive announcement in May of 2022. At that point, the project was already close to four years old. Joe Szymaszek, General Manager at Grapevine Mills, still remembers getting a mysterious call from the corporate office at Simon Property Group: an artist by the name of Vince Kadlubek wanted to tour the property. Szymaszek agreed, and that initial meeting set off a storm of follow-ups that included a Grapevine City Council visit to the original exhibit in Santa Fe. Leadership at Grapevine Mills had to keep all those details a secret for years, even as they touted the “game-changing” new tenant on the horizon. Once the deal was official, its impact was profound. 

“This is a deal that we’ve been working on since 2018,” Szymaszek said. “When you get these kinds of bell cow tenants, I can tell you, it changes your leasing strategy. Once Meow Wolf was announced, we had several of our existing tenants saying ‘uhhh, we’d like to extend our lease and lock in our rate now.’ And we certainly are listening to those conversations, because that’s what you do. But it has also opened up doors to new tenants. I won’t mention the tenant, but we did secure one who was lukewarm on the center until we said we were getting a Meow Wolf... it wound up changing their opinion completely and they’re now open and doing tremendous business.” 

Melting%20RainbowIn the meantime, our staff here in the Economic Development Department worked to contain the news until Meow Wolf was ready to announce. That’s a tall order because permitting deals and incentive agreements like the one used to attract the exhibit are public record: any citizen or reporter can ask to see them if they know what they’re looking for. To avoid leaking any information that wasn’t part of the public record, Meow Wolf Grapevine was codenamed “Project Black Corinth” in all internal communications. If that seems like overkill to you, there’s a good chance you’ve never met a fan of Meow Wolf. They tend to be investigative, and there’s a wealth of them here in our community. 

“Texas is important to us, in general. We’ve always had a lot of interest from Texas. We have a lot of fans in Texas. There are a lot of excellent artists in Texas. It’s nearby, it’s one of our neighbors [in New Mexico]. There are a lot of obvious things to us,” said Dale Sheehan, one of the Creative Directors overseeing Meow Wolf’s new exhibits in Grapevine and Houston. “We are really excited to go and be with, to get to know, and to grow our own community by joining communities there that we feel akin to. Grapevine is central to the DFW area, and it’s a great opportunity for us. We like to do weird and bold things – to try out and experiment – and it’s been a number of years now, [even before] we started this project in Grapevine, that the notion of opening something in a mall was being talked about inside of our walls.” 

Let’s Go to The Mall! 

It’s easy to speculate about thematic reasons for a company like Meow Wolf to build something inside a shopping center. One of their most popular installations is, after all, a satirical grocery store lambasting corporate greed and consumerism. But, aside from a clever activation within Grapevine Mills and some trippy nostalgia-bait advertising, the Creative team seems to be leaning away from that vein of commentary with The Real Unreal. In the course of our interview with executives in Santa Fe, the retail shopping element of the mall setting took a backseat to something more ingrained in local culture. 

“I had the pleasure of visiting Grapevine in the Spring of 2022. I did a tour of the town; we went to some artists’ studio spaces, we went to some museums and gardens and schools. Y’all have an amazing community, and the welcomeness that I felt coming into Grapevine was palpable. I think that Southern Hospitality is very real: your community is one of the most friendly, welcoming places that I have been,” said Danika Padilla, VP of Inclusion and Impact at Meow Wolf. “When I visited Grapevine Mills, it was Spring Break. And the number of families, the number of folks that were international – the gathering – I hadn’t seen that in a very long time. And I think for Grapevine Mills to already have that sense of community is one of the big reasons why we are excited about Grapevine Mills and going into the mall; the community that’s already there, and that y’all are building, is important!” 

Laernu“You know, malls used to be a place for people to go shop, but also for people to congregate, as well. We’re taking that Once-Was Place-to-Be and bringing it back in our own way,” added Sarah Bradley, an early collaborator at Meow Wolf who now serves as Creative Director and head of story. “What we do is create spaces for people to explore and get together... that in-person experience is very important to us. So it makes total sense for Meow Wolf to go to a mall, in that respect.” 

While you can safely expect to see some crossover with other Meow Wolf attractions and lore-exclusive brands, don’t anticipate a direct continuation of any specific theme. Some of the most popular rooms and landmarks at other locations might pop up again – it’s been hinted that elements from The House of Eternal Return will be recreated here – but The Real Unreal will have its own story. That said, you can expect an intimate connection with the upcoming Houston exhibit. 

Milling Around in Grapevine (and Houston) 

Part of the reason Meow Wolf works with so many collaborating artists is to generate an authentic sense of place. Each exhibit takes on some of the character and culture of the community around it, and Grapevine will be no different. Asked to describe the local culture, Sheehan deferred to the artists. 

“It’s always hard to be somewhere else and believe that you can really know another place. That’s why collaborating artists, and that program, is so vital to what we do. In a lot of ways, we can never speak for them. But what we can do is invite them in to speak for themselves. So 30% of our whole exhibition is all collaborating artists. Half of those are from the Dallas area. We also happen to have a few employees that are from Texas. One of our founders, as you may know, is actually from that area, specifically, and was at the opening of Grapevine Mills Mall as a child... but the culture that is there, to us, is really one of community. One that values family and values the family unit as a place of safety and a place where you can find love and your future. So the story – one of the stories, part of the story – that we are planning to tell here in Grapevine centers around that notion,” Sheehan said. 

Inside%20MWG“There’s a lot of overlap in the teams that are working on Grapevine and Houston, because these two projects are companions. They are purposefully companions. We are looking forward to, of course, a great experience in either location; whatever might be close to you or whichever you might visit first. But we’re endeavoring on a new project, which is to start to tell a part of the story of Meow Wolf’s universe that hasn’t been told before. And both of these exhibitions play a key part in that.” 

The final exhibit will be novel in almost every sense, from the long list of local vendors helping to stock the in-house café to the talent who will perform in the venue’s designated event space. But, perhaps most importantly, it will be different for every visitor because guests self-curate by design. 

“The audience is going to be creating their own experience from their own perspective, based on what they choose to spend time with and discover. It’s all driven by each participant. We’re not telling you how to do it; there is no proper way to do it. You just go and have fun and discover what you discover along the way,” Bradley said. “We keep finding new ways to express ourselves with this odd form of storytelling, this strange experiential form of storytelling. I could list some distinctions [between this and other exhibits], but I think they probably would not mean a lot to people. It’s a new dimension of whatever this strange artform is; something that is unexplored. We’re exploring a new part of it. A different realm.” 

Staff are hoping that each individual exploration leads to a collective connection, too.  

“I don’t think there’s any way around the reality that, as we’ve moved a lot of our social lives online, it is easier and easier to avoid interactions with the people that aren’t already sharing your own viewpoint. ‘Community’ used to mean learning how to live with the people around you. Now it means finding the people you want to live with,” Sheehan said. “And of course, there’s grey and it’s a spectrum and all of that, but one of our favorite things is watching strangers turn into friends. And that happens because you put people in a creative, engaging environment where they take down their defenses and are challenged by something unexpected. And the person next to them is having the exact same experience, and nothing else matters. So yeah, why not do that at a place that was one of the original gathering, community spaces?” 

If you’d like to be part of that community gathering, you can purchase tickets online now. You can also hear directly from the team behind The Real Unreal by listening to the Growing Grapevine podcast, available here and on your favorite podcast apps. To learn more about the City of Grapevine and its unique destination economy, visit our News Center or explore available sites, demographics, and business data under our Site Selection tab.