When a group of Santa Fe artists couldn’t find a gallery to exhibit their offbeat body of work, they built one. The exhibition was a howling success — and now it’s slinking into Denver, prompting development in one of the city’s rare untapped neighborhoods.
Why stare at a painting on a museum wall when you can walk inside of it instead?
That’s the question driving Meow Wolf, a ten-year-old Santa Fe arts collective creating avant-garde, freewheeling, maximalist artwork designed to plunge viewers headfirst into fantastical installations.
Case in point: House of Eternal Return, Meow Wolf’s first permanent exhibition, a bizarre interactive art viewing experience built inside of a 30,000-square-foot bowling alley in Santa Fe’s Midtown Innovation District.
The original Meow Wolf was constructed inside a 30,000-square-foot former bowling alley in Santa Fe's Midtown Innovation District
Inside the old bowling alley – beyond the doors of a fabricated, two-story Victorian mansion – giant, whimsical, touchable art installations are interspersed with multimedia elements and a mysterious narrative. The experience is so unique, even Meow Wolf co-founder and senior VP of creative Matt King struggles to describe it.
“It’s hard to grasp what it is until you experience it,” he says. His analogy? Explaining House of Eternal Return to somebody who hasn’t visited it — that’s kind of like describing the color orange to somebody who has never seen orange.
It’s safe to say Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return is unlike any other art in the world. And now, the unique concept is landing in Denver.
What’s a Meow Wolf, Anyway?
Founded in 2008, Meow Wolf started as a small collective of ten artists — “People who realized they weren’t going to make it in the traditional art scene,” says John Feins, Meow Wolf’s VP of communications.
The name Meow Wolf was drawn from a hat one night. “None of us were fully behind it at the time,” King admits.
“Once we established our medium and art form, that really solidified us as Meow Wolf. The collective “encompasses the ideas of inclusiveness, working together, and creative spirit,” he adds.
Before opening their permanent installation in Santa Fe in 2015, Meow Wolf installed 26 temporary exhibits in Albuquerque, Chicago, Boulder, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, Oregon, and San Antonio, among other locations. From the get-go, the group focused on creative and social projects that challenge viewers to rethink art entirely.
Meow Wolf was created by a collective of artists who didn't fit into the established Museum scene. All images provided by Meow Wolf.
In 2011, Meow Wolf got its first break when it was tasked with building a massive installation inside Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts.
The exhibit, a predecessor to House of Eternal Return, was only up for three months, but over 25,000 people came to see it — showing Meow Wolf that audiences were interested in their unconventional take on art.
Meow Wolf wanted to create something permanent, but a collective of underpaid artists didn’t exactly have the wherewithal to pull off their big vision.
Then three years ago, the group caught another break when Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek ran the idea for a permanent, large-scale, and immersive art installation past an old boss, George RR Martin, creator of Game of Thrones.
Kadlubek wasn’t even expecting Martin to return his call — let alone buy the old Silva Lanes bowling alley for $2.7 million. “Suddenly we had a 30,000-square-foot facility with parking, and House of Eternal Return was a go,” says Feins.
With crowd funding and donations from other outside investors, House of Eternal Return launched in March of 2016, in Santa Fe’s newish Midtown Innovation District.
eow Wolf is making a $50 million investment in its new attraction in Denver. All images provided by Meow Wolf.
All the while, the Meow Wolf pack morphed into a company composed of over 300 artists straddling disciplines, working in architecture, sculpture, painting, photography, video production, virtual and augmented reality, audio engineering, narrative writing, costuming, and more.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Meow Wolf aimed for 125,000 visitors in 2016, but a whopping 400,000 came out to see House of Eternal Return that year.
“The concern was that everybody would come once, and then we’d be sitting on this expensive art installation with very few people visiting,” Feins explains.
Turned out, one time simply wasn’t enough. Five hundred thousand visitors came to Meow Wolf in 2016, and, to date, over a million have walked through House of Eternal Return’s alluring front door.
The family-friendly exhibition was built to appeal to all generations, and that’s been good for business. “It’s weird to find something three generations can do together,” Feins muses.
House of Eternal Return has also benefited from Santa Fe’s art tourism — but what surprised the collective is how much local love the exhibition enjoys.
About half of the visitors who come to House of Eternal Return are from New Mexico, and Meow Wolf’s Denver attraction can probably expect to see a similar in-state versus out-of-state break-up.
Visitors to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe take a journey through s series of rooms, uncovering secret paths along the way.
Denverites can also expect Meow Wolf to contribute positively to the city’s flourishing art scene, driving even more art tourism dollars to town.
In 2017, for example, the state of New Mexico estimated $380 million dollars in economic impact from Meow Wolf over the next ten years. “We’ve had a huge economic impact on Santa Fe and the state,” Feins says, noting a sense that tourists are now coming to Santa Fe specifically to see Meow Wolf.
What’s more, local businesses in Santa Fe’s gritty Midtown Innovation District, where Meow Wolf is located, have seen double-digit gains in their revenue since Meow Wolf entered the scene. Will businesses in Jefferson Park benefit in a similar way?
Development Minus Gentrification?
After shopping an expansion concept to a few big cities, Meow Wolf announced that it would build its first permanent exhibition in a major market in Denver’s Jefferson Park neighborhood, across the river from Sports Authority Field, in the triangular plot bordered by Auraria Parkway and the Colfax Avenue and I-25 viaducts.
The racially diverse neighborhood is one of Denver’s poorest, with about one-third of its residents living in poverty. While neighborhoods surrounding Jefferson Park – Highland, West Highland, Sloan’s Lake, and Sun Valley – have completed or begun gentrification, Jefferson Park itself has remained an untapped resource.
And that’s one of the things that excites Meow Wolf.
“Meow Wolf spent months surveying sites around Denver, including the old Denver Post building,” says Sean Di Ianni, Meow Wolf’s chief operating officer.
When broker Mike Carnes of SVN International Group showed King and his group some land between two viaducts, in an undeveloped part of town, the Meow Wolf pack wasn’t so sure.
“You’d never think of building a building there,” King admits. “But once down there walking around the parking lot… the way the highways are spinning around… it’s actually a really cool location,” he says.
Before long, Meow Wolf linked up with Revesco, a U.S. and Canadian company focused on strategically located yet often underperforming retail real estate assets.
When construction wraps up, Meow Wolf will be a major addition – maybe even an anchor or co-anchor – to area attractions such as Elitch Gardens, Pepsi Center, Downtown Aquarium, the Children's Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, and Mile High Stadium.
Meow Wolf sees an opportunity to develop its new project in an intentional way.
“We know that’s happening in Denver, and we’re excited to be coming to a neighborhood that isn’t already gentrified,” says Feins.
Meow Wolf doesn’t want to turn Jefferson Park into a neighborhood where residents can’t afford housing. “We don’t want to add to the housing crisis,” Feins reiterates.
Visitors enter Meow Wolf through an ordinary Victorian mansion, but what comes next is....
Rather, the group wants to contribute to the neighbor’s economic prosperity — and it could, too, if Meow Wolf’s Denver exhibition is as much of a tourism driver as House of Eternal Return.
Down to Brass Tacks
Billed at $50 million dollars, Meow Wolf is developing its Denver expansion project with Revesco Properties, the real estate and management company that owns and manages Elitch Gardens.
Developers plan to break ground in September. After demolishing the Elitch Gardens administrative building that’s currently occupying the site, construction will begin on a five-story, seventy-foot, 90,000-square-foot complex designed to include a 60,000-square foot immersive art experience that’s three times the size of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
An additional 30,000 square feet could accommodate a lobby, café, bar, art lab, and/or retail spaces — that stuff’s still being hashed out. If all goes according to plan, Meow Wolf will be open in early 2020. The group is already offering early bird ticketing opportunities on its website, having set aside 20,000 pre-sale tickets for those who want to be first in line to see Meow Wolf’s Denver attraction.
When Meow Wolf began searching for an expansion site, Denver was a natural fit.
“We love Denver,” King says. Beyond feeling a strong kinship to the Mile High, which is home to an eclectic group of talented artists, Meow Wolf also valued the city’s proximity to Santa Fe.
“This being our first major market, and only our second permanent build, we wanted to do something close to home, to make lodging, commuting, and shipping easier,” King says.
On top of all that, Meow Wolf got “overwhelming positive feedback from the Denver community,” King says.
“When Denver learned of Meow Wolf's intention to look for a location in Denver and other communities across the nation, the real estate community quickly galvanized,” adds Dana Crawford of Urban Neighborhoods Inc.
So will the Denver project be a replica of House of Eternal Return?
No way. While Feins won’t talk specifics – “I wouldn’t tell you the second act of a play before you saw it,” he says – he will say that the Denver permanent exhibition will be an entirely new narrative and creative vision.
While the look, feel, and plot might be different, Denverites can expect the same larger-than-life aesthetic and hands-on, experiential components. “That’s who we are and what we do,” Feins says.
In addition to an influx in construction jobs, Meow Wolf Denver will also create a plethora of other jobs: creative, staffing, back office, front office, et cetera. And the plan is to employ 100 Denver artists, too, to help guide the design process alongside Meow Wolf’s internal team.
At the end of the day, King says, “We want to be a platform to support artists.”
“People consume art everyday, and we think artists should be paid fairly,” adds Feins. “That’s the mentality we’re bringing to Denver,” he says.