The four-story, 90,000-square-foot art complex will be three times bigger than Meow Wolf Santa Fe
In early 2020,Meow Wolf, the artist collective responsible for Santa Fe’s immersive art exhibit theHouse of Eternal Return, will open a permanent installation in Denver. The $50 million reality-wrinkling playhouse will rise 30 feet above Interstate 25, Colfax Avenue and Auraria Parkway viaducts that wrap it on three sides.
It’s the first step, Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek said, in transforming the DIY group into a nationally known name.
And Denver is just the beginning: Meow Wolf plans to announce expansions to three other major markets around the U.S. in 2018. It’s been scouting cities including Austin, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“This term ‘major market’ has been a really important term for us,” Kadlubek, 35, said. “We’ve been living by this term. Denver is the major market that we’re going to.”
The project — tentatively titledMeow Wolf Denver— is slated to open at 1338 First St. in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, just minutes away from Elitch Gardens and a short stroll from Mile High Stadium. The deal was brokered with Revesco Properties, which with Second City Real Estate and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment purchased Elitch Gardens for$140 million in 2015. A warehouse and an office building once used by Elitch’s will be razed when construction on Meow Wolf Denver begins in the third quarter of 2018.
City Councilman Albus Brooks, whose district includes Sun Valley, said he’s excited to have Meow Wolf, and hopes its presence will lead to further investment in entrepreneurial art projects.
“It’s a big day for artists and a great day for downtown Denver for us to be able to land it,” he said. “This is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.”
Meow Wolf signed a 20-year, $60 million lease on the space, far and away the largest deal in its decade history. Just seven years prior to inking the multimillion-dollar contract, Meow Wolf’s top brass were fashioning art installations from shoplifted Christmas lights and hauls from the Dumpster.
“The big question is, can this art collective maintain its character while it’s growing into this multibillion-dollar company,” Kadlubek said. “If we can, if this DIY art collective can turn into a multibillion-dollar art company and retain its character, then we’re going to be a cultural movement.”
To raise funds for the project, Meow Wolf will start selling three tiers of tickets to its Denver exhibit today: 20,000 general admission tickets for opening week of Meow Wolf Denver ($50); 1,000 tickets to a private gala event on its opening night ($1,000); and 100 lifetime passes, which are good for two tickets to any Meow Wolf space, event and concert in the world for the rest of your life ($10,000). Those are available atmeowwolf.com.
Meow Wolf Denver will be similar to the Santa Fe space, albeit more ambitious. It, too, will include an immersive narrative experience designed to transport its patrons through the looking glass. Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return offers the mystery of the Selig family, whose home has become riddled with portals to other universes. Denver’s concept is being kept under wraps for the time being, but expect more info on it later this year.
Standing four stories tall at a total of 90,000 square feet, Meow Wolf Denver will feature an exhibition space triple the size of the Santa Fe space. It will also have a bar, cafe, retail space and notably, a music venue. Meow Wolf will be the primary booker for the 800-person venue — for comparison, the Gothic Theatre in Englewood has room for 1,000 — but any independent promoter can rent the space.
During a visit to Meow Wolf’s manufacturing facility in Santa Fe in mid December, work on the Denver exhibit was already underway.
Steel workers, carpenters and artists focused their efforts on what’s been dubbed “the cathedral,” a two-story kaleidoscopic chapel that will host a 32-note pipe organ haunted by a gang of gargoyles and other creatures. Sparks flew as a welder worked on its dome, which will be flanked by two spires that will spin and scatter light through 2,000 square feet of stained glass when activated.
Meow Wolf execs surveyed nine locations — including The Denver Post’s old printing plant at 4400 Fox St. — during a year-and-a-half hunt for a Denver location. RiNo was too hipster. Globeville was too far away.
The Sun Valley location — set in the shadows of three highway viaducts that form a boundary that resembles a droopy slice of pizza — didn’t jump out at them at first, either. But the artist enclave prides itself on turning refuse into treasure.
“I think it’s going to be one of the most interesting buildings in the United States when it’s done,” said Meow Wolf co-founder Corvas Brinkerhoff. “Because almost everybody else would see that and go, that’s not developable. We see that and we go, that’s interesting.”
Its choice to settle in Sun Valley could be a turning point for one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods. Just as Meow Wolf hopes Denver will catalyze its expansion, Meow Wolf could help revitalize the neighborhood and its adjacent stretch of the Platte River.
Meow Wolf will join the $65 million Steam on the Platte development — a mixed-use project that will bring condos, a Lyft headquarters and a restaurant/brewery to Sun Valley — which has already begun taking shape on the other side of Colfax Avenue. Last year, Sun Valley received a $30 million grant from the federal government that will go toward developing 750 units of mixed-income housing, parks and an education hub in the area among other amenities.
Artists from Colorado and beyond have so far submitted 247 proposals for Meow Wolf Denver, according to Jessica Vradenburg, a Meow Wolf project manager. She didn’t say how many it would accept, but stated all approved projects would be compensated.
Merhia Wiese, a Denver-based business development project manager, said local artists’ response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, if a little incredulous.
“The adage ‘It’s too good to be true’ is definitely in the air,” Wiese said.
Kadlubek said he aims to use Meow Wolf’s success to bolster the arts scene. Meow Wolf donated $500,000 to arts organizations in 2017, including $70,000 to various Denver groups. It gave $100,000 to DIY spaces around the countryafter a deadly fire at Ghost Ship, an Oakland, Calif., DIY venue, caused a nationwide crackdown on the artist spaces. Of that $20,000 went to a fund administered by Denver Arts and Venues. It alsodonated $10,000to Denver DIY venues Rhinoceropolis and Glob earlier in the year.
“Meow Wolf in Denver isn’t going to be everything to everybody, nor do we want it to be. We’re going to be this really prominent, really blatant thing right downtown, a very public-facing institution that is really thinking about kids and families most of the time.”
Denver Arts and Venues deputy director Ginger White-Brunetti viewed Meow Wolf’s presence in Denver as a compliment to the strength and community of the city’s arts scene. “That’s a recipe that Meow Wolf saw, and said this is where we want to be.”
Given Denver’s population is eight times that of Santa Fe, Kadlubek doesn’t expect Meow Wolf to shake the artist community as hard as it did in Santa Fe.
Meow Wolf has grown remarkably since it was foundedin 2008. From its humble beginnings as scroungers and spare-time creatives, Kadlubek said the collective began doing things “as right as we could” around 2010. It began to concentrate on its mission to empower artists and keep art viable to the public, renting a 2,000-square-foot warehouse and raising money to write art grants.
Last year, the company made $8.1 million in revenue, turning $3.3 million in profits, Kadlubek said.
In 2015, George R.R. Martin, author of the fantasy book series that was adapted into HBO’s popular television show “Game of Thrones,” bought the defunct bowling alley the Meow Wolf Art Complex complex is housed in for $750,000 — a fraction of the $6 million the project cost in total — specifically to lease it to Meow Wolf. Martin is now among Meow Wolf’s largest investors, and is a major investor in Meow Wolf’s Denver project.
“Over the past two years, hundreds of thousands of visitors have explored House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe and thrilled to its unique blend of mystery, fantasy, and fun — a world of imagination made tangible by the amazing artists of Meow Wolf,” Martin said in a release. “I couldn’t be more excited to learn what weirdness we’ll find behind the new doors that Meow Wolf will be opening for us in Colorado.”
Today, Meow Wolf employs about 200 people, including the 135 it recently added to prepare for its imminent expansion. That number will grow as Meow Wolf marches to new metropolitan frontiers. Kadlubek estimated that Meow Wolf Denver alone would employ more than 300 employees once operational.
“Denver is the most culturally significant city in the United States right now. That’s because of our generation, and it’s because of the way that (Denver) is listening, and the way creativity is valued still,” Kadlubek said. “It still has the ability to survive here.”
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