Can a $50 Million Funhouse Save Denver's DIY Art Scene?
Residents of the city seem cautiously optimistic about Meow Wolf's plan to open a new art space in a low-income neighborhood.
Meow Wolf's Santa Fe installation. Photo by Lindsay Kennedy courtesy of Meow Wolf
When Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin teamed up with a group of dumpster-diving punk artists to turn a bowling alley into an interdimensional funhouse, nobody could’ve predicted they’d end up sparking an economic revolution in the art world.
But that’s exactly what Meow Wolf is up to.
The Santa Fe company has somehow managed to walk that razor-thin line between commercial success and artistic freedom. Its immersive art installation/concert venue, House of Eternal Return (picture Yellow Submarine reimagined by Isaac Asimov), has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the New Mexico capital, generating enough revenue to pay its hive of DIY artists a livable wage with benefits, and to expand its mind-bending attractions to five new cities.
Though as Meow Wolf leave behind the Artful Dodger life of squatting in warehouses for the comfort of being a multimillion-dollar corporation, it's faced with the same dilemma once encountered by the Clash, Roseanne Barr, and Rolling Stone magazine: How do you maintain your underground credibility while making a fuckload of money?
This conundrum has been playing out in Denver, Colorado, where Meow Wolf recently announced its intention to build a $50 million instillation in one of the poorest sections of the city, sparking concerns about exacerbating gentrification and crushing the underground art scene.
“I’m worried about them working with that amount of cash,” says Kalyn Heffernan of the hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp, who has performed at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe and has been protesting gentrification in Denver. She fears a big-budget project like Meow Wolf could negatively impact the low-income neighborhood of Sun Valley. “Nobody’s tried this before. It seems like they want to be better [than most corporations]. But anything on this scale is going to be problematic.”
While she has her concerns, Heffernan, as with most other artists in the DIY community, is cautiously optimistic about Meow Wolf Denver. This is in part due to Meow Wolf’s self-professed intent to change the economic game for artists, a very contentious issue in the city.
“Artists in this city are not making a lot of money,” says Wesley Watkins, a Denver musician with Other Black (and formerly Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats). “I want to make sure that the local artists that have been here and fighting are going to be respected. I’d like to see a venue that’s representing a wide-variety of sound and culture, all races, all walks.”
Due to warehouse spaces being eaten up by the marijuana boom, various income inequality issues, and persecution from city officials, many of Denver’s DIY arts communities, which often create and reside in commercial warehouse spaces, have been decimated. Following accusations of selling-out the city to developers, city officials have been looking to extend tax dollars, and an olive branch, to the underground art scene.
By default, Meow Wolf has found itself brokering between these two factions.
“We don’t want to be a savior [of DIY arts],” says Vince Kadlubek, CEO and co-founder of Meow Wolf. “We just want to be behind-the-scenes patrons. And to help build a bridge between the city and the DIY arts community.”
Its cozy relationship with the Denver legislators, along with its multimillion dollar projects, have inspired suspicion from the queer-punk culture that Meow Wolf grew out of.
Kadlubek, however, had no idea he would end up the face of a large corporation when he helped form Meow Wolf on Valentines Day 2008. “We were in a 900 square-foot art collective, just throwing small punk, hip-hop, and metal shows,” he recalls of their early days in Santa Fe, working out of a poorly insulated warehouse. “There were 14 artists and we decorated the space, filling every inch with a lot of chicken wire, papier-mâché, dumpstered materials. There was no money involved, except for everyone pitching in on rent.”
To turn Meow Wolf into a profitable operation, a requirement if it wanted to fund more ambitious projects, it would need a clean, warm, permanent space to work with. So Kadlubek reached out to his former employer at a local theater, whose fantasy novels were experiencing some success as an HBO series (ahem, Game of Thrones) to ask if he’d like to purchase an abandoned bowling alley on the outskirts of town, and become one of their first investors.
“If George [R.R. Martin] had not come forward to buy the building, I think we might have dismantled,” Kadlubek says.
Launched in March 2016, the House of Eternal Return was a relative overnight success. Guests to the attraction first enter a cozy domestic home, then, through their own exploration, discover that the cabinets, washing machine, refrigerator, and other sections of the house are portals into alternate dimensions where neon rainforests lead to Kubrick-clean spacecrafts, a vintage 90s arcade, and a cozy living room in an endless labyrinth of trippy sights and sounds.
HOER held a broad appeal for everyone from suburban tourists to druggy artists, casting a wide—and lucrative—net.
Once production on HOER was completed, Kadlubek says, “Some of the investors suggested we let [the artists] go, and then hire them back for the next project. To me, that felt like a shitty continuation of the gig economy, seeing artists as disposable. So instead we sold 25 percent of the company for $17 million [and] brought all the artists on as salaried employees with benefits. In order to maintain our team at that level, we had to expand, and have an investment narrative that will bring enough money in.” This came in the form of five new Meow Wolf locations outside of Santa Fe.
So far, Kadlubek has only announced plans for Meow Wolf projects in Denver and Las Vegas, while floating the possibility of landing in Austin, DC, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. Since announcing Meow Wolf Denver, he’s been making the rounds to every corner of the Denver art scene, listening to the concerns of every cartoonist, comedian, zinester, painter, musician, and slam poet he comes in contact with in the hopes that he can make Meow Wolf a complement to the underground art scene, and not a black hole that consumes it.
“Community outreach to me is individual relationships, it’s showing up; for me, it’s a top priority,” he says. “As CEO, my job is to build as valuable a company as I can, and to us value isn’t just dollars, it’s being a part of a community. We’re trying our best to be a model for how a corporation should enter into a market... We are concerned about gentrification, so we sponsored the gentrification summit in Denver last week.”
The plot of land Meow Wolf will be moving onto is adjacent to the Sun Valley neighborhood, an often overlooked slice of the city with the lowest income residents, yet a thriving Chicano culture.
“Having a big venue in your neighborhood alienates the constituents that live there,” says Ben Opt Won Chavez, who works for a prison-reentry program that services Sun Valley, and lives in the area near the future Meow Wolf. “I’ve seen the foot traffic that Meow Wolf brings to their location in Santa Fe. There are just warehouses around there. They’re not impacting any neighborhood. I wish they could’ve picked a better location [in Denver]. That location was chosen because people assume it’s off the beaten path and won’t impact anyone, but just a few blocks away there’s the Sun Valley neighborhood, and I feel it’s gonna be a burden on them.”
“I think a lot of our community is most concerned for Sun Valley," says Heffernan. "There is a strong sense of culture and diversity that’s been holding on for a very long time in one of [Denver's] last low-income neighborhoods. Meow Wolf will most certainly attract many newcomers to an area that has been untouched for so long. I want to see everyone actively protecting the people who were there before so they are not systematically forced to relocate.”
The Meow Wolf project is only a fraction of the development projects that aim to revitalize the Sun Valley neighborhood, with public-private investment looking to reach over $500 million in the next decade.
Kadlubeck says that avoiding negative impacts on Sun Valley is a top priority for his team. “We have a four-person team in Denver focused exclusively on community outreach needs, and our top priority is Sun Valley. By summer of 2018, we look to have a first draft of our community impact strategy ready to share publicly, which will focus primarily on Sun Valley neighborhood.”
More than circumnavigating the negative impacts redevelopment can often have on a neighborhood, Meow Wolf says they have been engaged in a fight to reverse the tide of gentrification in Denver.
Following the deadly fire at Ghost Ship (the DIY venue/residence in Oakland, California), a multitude of Denver underground venues were collectively shut down by the city for various code violations. In January 2017, Meow Wolf immediately inserted itself into the dilemma.
“I heard from Meow Wolf that very same day,” says John Gross, musician and co-facilitator of the underground venue Rhinoceropolis, one of many unexpectedly hit with a bouquet of expensive infractions from the city. “It was a chaotic time. My roommates were crying and freaking out; there were the firemen, police, vice squad, reporters, it was a traumatic thing... Meow Wolf kept us afloat over the last year. We would’ve lost the lease without them.”
In response to the Ghost Ship fire, Meow Wolf created a $100,000 DIY fund to bring underground venues across the country up to code, donating a total of $500,000 to arts projects. “The city saw what we were doing and saw the positive PR and decided they also wanted to give money to Denver DIY spaces,” says Kadlubek. “Then they realized they can’t use tax-dollars for projects that are not up to code. So they gave us the money to distribute to venues of our choice through the DIY fund initiative. And that’s how we got into the middle of this whole thing.”
While Kadlubek believes communication between the DIY crowd and the city of Denver has become “the most progressive dialogue on this issue across the country,” he also acknowledges that “the venues don’t trust the city. And the city needs the venues to come forward and say who they are in order to get help getting up to code.”
Kadlubek acknowledges that underground venue operators including Rhinoceropolis have plenty of reasons to not trust the city, not least because red tape has prevented them from reopening despite extensive renovations.
“Meow Wolf can be mediators between city council and the arts scene,” says Katie Jane (not her real name), the operator of a DIY venue in Denver who is not yet comfortable outing itself to the city for fear of a shutdown. “But when it comes to gentrification, real-estate issues, affordability for artists, it’s beyond Meow Wolf’s reach. It doesn’t erase the distrust we have with city personnel, not yet. They can’t change the fact that a majority of Albus Brooks’s campaign contributions come from developers or bankers involved with development.”
In any conversation about gentrification in Denver, you’re likely to hear the name Albus Brooks. Director of the Denver City Council and author of the controversial “camping ban” which essentially criminalizes homelessness, Brooks oversees the warehouse district where Rhinoceropolis, and other underground venues, are located. Brooks has been central to a lot of the diplomatic efforts between the city and the underground art community.
His presence at the launch party for Meow Wolf Denver, which was populated with young artists who’d been evicted out of their homes in his district, made for an uncomfortable mix. At one point, Kalyn Heffernan approached him saying, “We don’t trust you,” and later delivered a message to Brooks that said, "We’re not going to stop heckling you until you start serving the fucking communities that you’re profiting from."
Brooks is quick to admit that “there was a horrible response from the city when it comes to Rhinoceropolis.” Adding that “building trust with entrepreneurial artists is tough, but we’re in this for the long haul.”
For Kadlubek, achieving his goals of fair pay for artists, civility between underground arts and the city, and creating a model for how a major corporation can move into a neighborhood and do some good—or at the very least, not bleed it dry—all center around a single message: Art is valuable.
“Every day, corporate businesses that come into a city are realizing that having an authentic youth culture is valuable to their business, it’s valuable to their employees, it’s valuable to the quality of life in a city, it makes the city feel vibrant. And that vibrancy comes from art and diversity.”
At the same time, Kadlubek has no interest in preaching a corporate gospel to the crust-punk kids, nor does he think it necessarily would be a good idea if they followed in the footsteps of Meow Wolf.
“I think business is antithetical to the majority of DIY spaces,” he says. “That’s not the purpose of those spaces. It would be a shitty cultural landscape if everything was like Meow Wolf. There needs to be spaces that are agitating, and ambiguous in their identity. We want to be behind the scenes patrons of DIY, that can give those spaces better opportunity to thrive—but not to become a multimillion-dollar business.”
Follow Josiah Hesse on Twitter.