"CASA BONITA IS BETTER THAN MEOW WOLF"
Those are the words on a bumper sticker that's likely to start showing up all over Denver — a bite at Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based DIY art project-turned-entertainment giant slated to open a massive venue in Denver in 2020.
The stickers are being produced and distributed for free by two of Denver's more radical artist-led outposts: Georgia Art Space, run by Sommer Browning; and Peralta Projects, run by Esteban Peralta, venues that have opened in garages near downtown, where they display smart contemporary art too often ignored by Denver's commercial and nonprofit art scenes.
"We both realized pretty quickly that the sticker was going to create more questions than it answered," says Peralta, who conceived the project with Browning after the two talked about an article in Texas-based art publication Glasstire dubbed "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Meow Wolf?"
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The sticker is a tiny grenade lobbed at the myth that Denver — from its political brass and developers to its scrappiest of artists — is wholeheartedly embracing. And it also deflates the ridiculous notion that "immersive" art — that trendy moniker being used to monetize the once anti-commercial genre of installation art — is something new. The sticker rightly suggests that Casa Bonita, replete with cave divers, vaudeville, a 500-pound gorilla and mariachi bands, can lay claim to being an immersive experience every bit as much as Meow Wolf.
(In fact, the morning after more than 250 people attended the first Denver Immersive Summit on November 10, thirty of them attended a spin-off brunch at Casa Bonita...a place that artist Lonnie Hanzon had cited as an immersive icon in his talk that kicked off the summit.)
So do the artists who made the sticker think that Casa Bonita, the restaurant that Denver residents love to hate, is actually art?
"I love Casa Bonita," says Peralta. "Casa Bonita is a Denver institution, and I have nothing but reverence for it."
"I, too, love it," adds Browning.
Do they like Meow Wolf? The answer to that is a bit more nuanced.
Peralta says that Meow Wolf will likely have little impact on small, independent projects like theirs, and that while they wish the company well — and assume it will do well — they just don't speak the same language or share the same goals or audiences as Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek and his scrappy collective-turned-big company. (Meow Wolf now employs more than 300 people in Santa Fe.)
"I think when the person who is funding your endeavor [Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin] is giving exclusive interviews to Entertainment Weekly about it and your founder is talking about how artists should embrace capitalism, it illustrates some fundamental differences between what most small, independent galleries and artists do and what Meow Wolf does," Peralta says. "It's a completely different language, and I don't think artists or art spaces in Denver or any of the other many cities they're looking at for expansion have anything to worry about."
Even Denver's crankiest underground artists have been relatively silent — in public, at least — when it comes to expressing apprehensions about Meow Wolf. On background, many of these perennial grumps say they have kept their traps shut while hoping to tap into the seemingly endless fount of funds the organization has been pouring over Denver's Mile High cultural scene. After all, jobs for artists are scarce. And as Denver's DIY arts community has incurred a glut of trauma over the past years — from evictions and squabbles with the city to artists' premature deaths — the support of Meow Wolf has been a welcome balm for many.
How does Browning think Meow Wolf will impact small projects like the one she runs? She agrees with Peralta that Meow Wolf isn't a real threat, and much like some parents look forward to taking their kids to Casa Bonita, she's excited to take her daughter, the namesake of her gallery, to Meow Wolf's Denver space when it opens.
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"Frankly, I'm excited that my kid will be able to hang out at Meow Wolf and experience it," says Browning. "I think she will dig it. And I'm in agreement with Esteban that I don't think it will impact spaces like ours that
While many have lamented the death of Denver's art scene at the hands of greedy developers, Browning takes a less apocalyptic view, noting how many small artist-run projects are popping up in town.
"Denver is creating more spaces like Georgia and Peralta Projects and Yes Ma'am and Grand Opening every month, it seems," she says. "It is pretty dang wonderful. Maybe we will soon be asking the question, what impact do these spaces have on Meow Wolf?"