Tue. Nov 29th, 2022


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Meow Wolf Denver could change Colorado’s tourism, art scene

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Meow Wolf Denver, which opens its 90,000-square-foot new building on Sept. 17, may quickly become one of the city’s top-selling attractions and tourist magnets, if past installations in Santa Fe and Las Vegas are any guide.

With a projected million-plus visitors annually, according to the company, Meow Wolf’s Denver facility could also reshape the city and state’s beleaguered arts economy. The work of 120 Colorado artists — along with 200 in-house writers, sculptors, painters, designers and fabricators — makes up the Denver installation’s dreamlike sculptures, brightly colored environments and interactive, high-tech tableaus.

Yet at the moment, there are more questions than answers about Meow Wolf’s Denver entry. Its four-story exhibition at Interstate 25 and West Colfax Avenue is being marketed as a bizarre, socially conscious yet family-friendly space. How, then, will its mix of art gallery and theme-park trappings fare with the public, or represent our city to outsiders?

Many of us — including those who have visited Meow Wolf’s Santa Fe-based House of Eternal Return since its 2016 opening — have been wondering the same things.

Will Meow Wolf be good for Denver?

All signs point to yes, more than a dozen interviewees for this article said, although the benefits may be spread unevenly. Denver’s annual visitors (17 million, pre-pandemic, according to the latest data) are visiting a mostly empty downtown these days. Only 10% to 20% of the workforce has returned to the “dead zone,” The Colorado Sun reported, or about 28,000 of the 140,000 people who normally work there.

City boosters have adopted a wait-and-see approach as to whether Meow Wolf will drive a restaurant, bar and hotel revival. It’s entirely possible, given the lack of amenities near Meow Wolf’s relatively obscure address at 1338 1st St. (most of us have only walked by its location while streaming in and out of Broncos games).

In its home base of Santa Fe, Meow Wolf has remade the economy and secured the official approval of the state. “In Denver, with its large population base, the draw, as a percentage of visitation, will be much greater from residents,” said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe. “Denver will also learn that Meow Wolf appeals to all ages, not just the younger demographic or the family. … In Denver I do not see it changing the city identity, except to make it more art-centric and more complete.”

Meow Wolf’s Santa Fe installation has seen more than 2 million visitors since opening in 2016, the company said, including 265,000 since reopening in March. A report from the New Mexico Economic Development Department projects that over the next decade the company will have had a $2.5 billion to $2.9 billion impact on the state’s economy.

In Las Vegas, where Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart installation debuted in February, the company has sold about 600,000 tickets, according to Didi Bethurum, VP of marketing.

In Denver, the company has sold close to 100,000 tickets ahead of its opening date, said spokeswoman Erin Barnes. Officials haven’t disclosed the cost of Meow Wolf’s new building, but previously signed a $60 million, 20-year lease for the property. “We did spend more than we originally anticipated from what was announced in 2018, due to many factors including the pandemic,” Barnes said. “It cost more than our original exhibition in Santa Fe and our second installation in Las Vegas.”

Is Meow Wolf good for Colorado artists?

Overall, yes. Company officials have pushed back against years-long assertions from local detractors that Meow Wolf’s investments create a sort of class system in the art scene — where favored names benefit while others suffer.

That’s just how competition works, the company has said, even in the creative world. “Artists who are curated into things tend to get a leg up,” said Chadney Everett, senior creative director of Meow Wolf Denver. “There are so many people deserving of benefit, but it’s just not feasible to fund every artist.”

And anyway, he added, the company is just getting started in Denver.

“There’s a large number of people in this state who have had to figure out how to make permanent immersive artwork,” said Caity Kennedy, a co-founder and creative director. “That will inform and influence whatever they make in the future — whether because the experience was so annoying that they never want to do it again, or because it was so cool.”

Meow Wolf hopes to incorporate more Colorado artists into future expansions, and has already pumped about $615,000 into the local arts community through nonprofit support and sponsorships.

However, employee turnover, investor revolts, lawsuits and apparent union-busting have become realities at Meow Wolf as it has rapidly scaled-up from a scrappy DIY arts collective to multimillion-dollar entertainment giant.

“My hope is that they do more to lift individual artists than to absorb them,” said Mar Williams, a veteran Denver artist who joined a gender discrimination lawsuit against the company in 2019, which has since been settled. “If I went somewhere with a Disney attraction, I wouldn’t see Disney as tied to the local art scene.”

Josiah Hesse, a Denver writer who formerly ran the Suspect Press literary and art magazine, said his contract work with Meow Wolf — helping brainstorm and draft Convergence Station’s narrative — evaporated after a certain point due to what he believes was a wholesale shift in leadership. He and Suspect Press received more than $100,000 from Meow Wolf when the company first entered the market.

“Most of the people I worked with there are now gone,” he said. “It happened right before the pandemic. And that happened with a lot of other people they’d been working with in Denver.”

How will Meow Wolf treat its hourly Denver employees?

Great or poorly, depending on whom you ask. The 280 Denver employees that will run the installation — including its cafe, bar and music venue (the Perplexiplex) — will help give Denverites a sense of local ownership over it, the company has said, and more jobs are on the way.

Some former employees, investors and union organizers, however, are worried that Meow Wolf’s stature is allowing it to act with impunity, including silencing former employees with non-disparagement agreements. One job posting at Meow Wolf this week included the heading “Labor Relations and Union Avoidance,” which called for campaigns in “union-free parts of the company.” Meow Wolf removed the language after critics circulated it online.

Resistance to last year’s attempts to form the union eventually forced the company’s about-face. Currently, 143 workers are part of a bargaining unit that covers multiple departments in the company. They’ve been negotiating since March on their first contract, according to a spokesman.

In 2020, dozens of ground-floor investors were also cut out as the company exercised its right to redeem its shares at $83.70 per share, while raising hundreds of millions in outside investments. Investors at the time contemplated a class-action lawsuit, which has yet to materialize.

Meow Wolf is a public benefit corporation, which, as the company has said, means it has a dual mandate to focus on profits and social impacts. The company tends to repeat that line any time bad publicity bubbles up.

Will Meow Wolf squash the competition?

Whether it’s a touring event, such as one of the Van Gogh-immersive shows, or a homegrown production, artists have for years wondered if Meow Wolf’s brand-name debut in Denver could leech attention away from the other immersive attractions.

But Convergence Station is not looking to kill art galleries, museums, theme parks, haunted houses or pop-up events in the area. Instead, it will be additive, and perhaps even inspiring, officials there said.

“We’re trying to bring people into exhibitions who would never typically go to a gallery or museum, and part of how we do that is very intentionally riding a line between entertainment and art,” said creative director Everett. “And these artists are getting more eyes on their work than they’d normally ever get.”

Denver’s immersive scene continues to fill up with would-be annual events like the Stanley Marketplace’s Camp Christmas — a kitschy and overwhelming (in a good way) selfie installation — and upstarts like the Rainbow Dome art-skating rink, horror-themed Delirium bar at South Broadway’s HQ, and the ongoing Distortions Monster World at Denver Pavilions. Will they even have a chance?

“Denver’s art scene has been just decimated by the gentrification of this city, especially our DIY arts scene, which is almost completely dead,” said writer Hesse. “I can’t imagine having a big corporate art installation off the highway is going to do much to improve that circumstance.”

Carly Howard, whose Enigma Bazaar immersive space and cafe opens its Cosmic Chaos show on Sept. 17, said Denver’s immersive-art scene was already growing before Meow Wolf.

“There were powerful immersive theater shows by local companies and art installations popping up all over the place,” she said. “We aren’t on the same scale as (Meow Wolf), of course, but we value the immersive experience and are excited that Denver is becoming a hub for this kind of art.”

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