DENVER — “Do you have a vape pen or invisible gun?” the security guard asked, looking in my bag as I walked through a metal detector. Meow Wolf’s immersive schtick is back in business as it opens a new 90,000-square-foot Denver franchise. In Santa Fe, visitors enter the multiverse through a home, and in Las Vegas it’s a grocery store. The latest portal is a transportation hub, perfect for a site wedged among a freeway ramp, a highway, and a byway to the Broncos football stadium. For the sake of journalism, I masked up and traveled to another time on another planet, where unions are unwelcome and inflation is rampant, with the admission price of $45.
Like any concourse, travelers have a few gates to choose from. I selected an elevator that opened to a futuristic urban street. The space was initially confusing, with no apparent route or purpose, but I eventually found an art gallery that accessed a corridor of television sets. From there I somehow arrived at an expansive garden that was like a Rainforest Café managed by Guillermo del Toro. There were balconies overlooking a full-sized chapel and a labyrinth of interesting interactive rooms.
Meow Wolf encourages visitors to turn every wheel, pull every lever, and reveal a new space behind every door, which creates the impression that we are all curious explorers on a pilgrimage. It was all lovely until I noticed people milling around in straw rain coats. When I was approached with greetings that lacked the charisma of players at a local Renaissance fair, I realized they were performers and I was never able to recapture the sense of immersion.
At a 2018 symposium in Denver on artist-run spaces that included gallery representatives from Regina Rex (now closed), Good Weather, and the multi-city network Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Los Angeles-based artist Alex Paik argued that Meow Wolf is damning for artists because it teaches the public that amusement is art. I was surprised to watch the room nod in agreement, especially since it was hard to find an artist in Denver who was not at some stage of a proposal to work with the company that year. The classist statement is ridiculous because Meow Wolf teaches the public nothing.
When critic Ben Davis coined the term “Big Fun Art” in response to Meow Wolf, people were already lining up for another Kusama infinity room and selfie-friendly exhibition; the power of the single artwork had been eroding in museums for years. A carefully curated Monet exhibition? No, we need 100 Monets! Rare Japanese prints? Boring. I need steel that looks like a balloon executed by an unnamed fabricator! If your show lacks sufficient spectacle, some programming should do the trick, like Daimyo for a Day, in which a child can be a warlord. “The Disneyfication of culture is complete,” wrote Heather Havrilesky of our ravenous consumption of something as seemingly pure and authentic as art, in her essay “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
The fact that the number of artists employed by Meow Wolf is easier to find out than their names illustrates the commodified fantasy. The company’s mastery of the art market’s smoke and mirrors is its most impressive illusion. For example, it boasted 100,ooo ticket sales before Denver’s opening day, but it’s unclear whether that includes the weeks of free but ticketed public previews. In addition, inquiries about improved accessibility at the Denver site were addressed with a memo that was not approved for publication.
The real wormhole to another dimension exists in Meow Wolf’s financials. In 2017, the New Mexico Economic Development Department projected the company would have a $1.5 billion economic impact on the state for 10 years. Fresh from a successful capital raising campaign, with 83 employees on the payroll, but costs outpacing revenues and nearly $20 million in debt, the future looked bright (but not Billions bright), which makes this curious explorer wonder, what is included in economic impact? Hyperallergic obtained the report and found that impact included projected revenue and property taxes paid by the New Mexico location, and anticipated taxes on income, property, and spending by 325 employees making $50,000 annually and 111 “indirect workers” earning $81,000. The $1.5 billion also included taxable spending by tourists to New Mexico who patronize Meow Wolf. Today the company employs 300 people across several states.
Meow Wolf told Forbes this year it expects to make a $2.5 billon economic impact, pointing to the authority of the 2017 report, positive early numbers this year, and the most recent capital campaign, netting $158 million. Terms like “economic impact” play musical chairs with “taxable sales” in various press items, but they are not the same thing. Certainly, three locations are better than one for sales, but American companies do not pay taxes when costs exceed revenues, and equity investment is not revenue. Turns out Big Fun Art has some Very Exciting Math.
As 30-foot, glow-in-the-dark Vincent van Gogh replicas tour the nation without seriously affecting the integrity of the originals, it is presumptuous to say Meow Wolf is either a predator or a protector of art and art ecosystems. Meow Wolf is not its scrappy origin story any more than Apple is a table tennis game on a green computer screen. It is simply a young for-profit company exhibiting growth and it needs to sell tickets.
Meow Wolf Denver (1338 1st Street, Denver) is now open to the public.