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

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.

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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.”

Andy Cross/The Denver Post

Stairs led up to a vaguely alien structure as part of the Numina, the swamp-themed anchor space inside Meow Wolf Denver’s Convergence Station on Aug. 13. Convergence Station, Meow Wolf’s third permanent location, is set to open September 17.

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.”

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