Don’t bother begging for the chicken exit: Meow Wolf’s wild ride is finally arriving in Denver.
On April 20 the Santa Fe-based arts and entertainment company will debut its dark ride, Kaleidoscape, at Elitch Gardens, giving the city a taste of what’s in store for Meow Wolf Denver, the 90,000-square-foot venue and art installation being built at the intersection of I-25 and Colfax Avenue, in partnership with the corporation that owns the amusement park.
Meow Wolf got its start in 2008 as a scrappy DIY arts collective that took swings at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe-haunted, turquoise-obsessed high-end gallery scene by making populist art that was fun and accessible. Seven years later, the ambitious punks running the group received an injection of millions of dollars in loans from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, which they used to buy a defunct bowling alley and transform it into a massive, sci-fi-themed installation dubbed The House of Eternal Return, which opened in March 2016. More than 500 artists have worked on the project, and over the past three years, Meow Wolf itself has been transformed into a multinational, multimillion-dollar corporation with aspirations to spread its tentacles nationwide. In a recent April Fool’s Day joke, Meow Wolf announced that it would be setting up its first installation in outer space.
Having fun with fine art? How dare they!
With the ribbon-cutting on Kaleidoscape just a month away, I finally took my own wild ride to Santa Fe to see The House of Eternal Return. I assumed I’d loathe it, especially after spotting warnings about long lines and spring break crowds. I hate crowds. I hate claustrophobic spaces. I hate puzzles.
More than all that, I hate jargon. Meow Wolf swims in trendy words: experience, narrative, disrupter. And my least favorite: immersive.
Yuck. The word reminds me of drowning. Suffocating. Being covered in human waste. Still, Denver’s arts community and its army of PR pros have latched onto the word as marketing magic since January 2018, when Meow Wolf announced that it was coming to town, using it to breathe life into otherwise boring projects. And the disease has spread: Nationally, Kohler even uses it for a “fully-immersive experience” toilet — which at least collects human waste.
I assumed that Meow Wolf would be showcasing its own vacuous, trendy garbage gussied up as innovative “immersive art.”
I was very wrong.
At The House of Eternal Return, the lines weren’t as long as I’d feared they would be. The crowds were sprawling, but largely respectful of each other — even collaborating to understand the installation.
Experiencing that installation goes like this: After waiting in line and then paying a steep price for tickets, you walk into the exhibit and encounter a Victorian house owned by the fictional Selig-Pastore family in Mendocino, California. Inside, you start exploring, touching everything, trying to solve mysteries: Where and what is Nimsesku? (Spoiler alert: It’s a hamster). What happened to the family that once lived here?
The installation is cultish, mysterious and irresistible. There are LEGOs on the floor, poetry on the walls and books everywhere. Sound installations abound, as do surprising exits from the house leading into a trippie world: the multiverse. Wherever you wander, you discover new things to play with.
Over two days, I spent seven hours at Meow Wolf. A Harley-riding couple I bumped into at a Santa Fe burrito joint told me they knew a guy who had spent more than 100 hours there. Clearly, I had just scratched the surface.
Even so, each time I left Meow Wolf, my senses were heightened. I found intrigue, puzzles and beauty in my dull-as-dust hotel room. My vision and experience of the world had shifted. I was curious, open to unseen possibilities around me in everyday spaces.
But can the Meow Wolf experience travel? Will the Santa Fe artists — out of their element and collaborating with entirely new communities, particularly ones like Denver, with rabid nativist streaks — manage to pull off such a profound installation in another city? Or will the quality of the art be quashed by capitalist aspirations? Can art co-exist with an amusement park? Or will Kaleidoscape take us all for a ride?
The PR people working for Meow Wolf are treading gingerly ahead of the Denver launch.
For years, Meow Wolf employees handled their own communications with the outside world. The Los Angeles-based Jive PR was hired by Meow Wolf last fall to lead the launch of its self-produced documentary, Meow Wolf: Origin Story. The movie chronicles the early days of the group, which started as a messy, anarchist-leaning collective. In the film, members feud, struggle over who’s in charge, suffer the death of a collaborator and deal with the temper of Vince Kadlubek, the moody co-founder who rose to power as CEO and often serves as the public face of the company — touting the virtues of do-gooder capitalism. Like most autobiographies, the film is revealing enough to seem honest, but selective in how much mess it exposes.
Its launch was a success, and Meow Wolf hired the PR firm full-time, as the company moved forward with already announced projects in Las Vegas (opening this year) and Denver (officially in late 2020, but probably in 2021, according to one insider) and announced new installations in Washington, D.C. (2022) and Phoenix (2024).
Jive PR denied a request to speak with Kadlubek, and instead provided Matt King, the senior vice president of creatives and the senior creative on Kaleidoscape, and Emily Montoya, the senior vice president of branding. Those fancy titles are a mouthful for co-founders of a collective that got its start dumpster diving and shellacking trash.
King, for example, is the kind of guy who would rather paint a floor than talk to a journalist. And when the PR people “patch us in,” then listen to the meandering conversation, he does both. As he paints, he talks about building The House of Eternal Return and its positive impact on the formerly industrial neighborhood where it’s located; the possible traffic issues that the Denver building might create; Meow Wolf’s persistent and occasionally turbulent social-media strategy in dealing with critics; and what it means to bring together art and entertainment in an amusement park ride.
At the moment, King is working inside what used to be called Ghost Blasters 2 — the circa 2008 Elitch’s ride where kids once gunned down phantoms. But in the age of mass shootings, that became a little spooky and slightly distasteful, and Revesco Properties — the company that owns Elitch Gardens and is developing the Meow Wolf project — made the politically smart choice to hand it over to Meow Wolf to redesign as a dark ride. Having wanted to work for Disney as a kid, King is thrilled to be creating an art installation in an amusement park. He views Kaleidoscape as the company’s foot in the door with such facilities. Still, working with a pre-existing ride comes with limitations.
“The tracks stayed the same. The layout of the spaces stayed the same,” he says. “We came in and took all the elements, the ones we wanted to keep. We took all the animatronics and pneumatics back to Santa Fe. We started rebuilding them there and building new sculpture.”
Despite not creating Kaleidoscape from scratch, he promises, “It is definitely a Meow Wolf ride now.”
King sums up Kaleidoscape in one word: “psychedelic.”
Montoya uses more. “The idea behind the ride is it’s a simulator that’s operated by an entity called QDOT that stands for the Quantum Department of Transportation,” she explains. “They are a subway system that connects the multiverse. Kaleidoscape starts out with a tiny point of light that then grows and multiplies and expands into a fully realized landscape that evolves into a symphony of color and light and chaos. As a rider, your role is to help that tiny point of light grow.”
Ghost Blasters 2 had included neon guns that riders shot; Meow Wolf has kept those and renamed them Conglomatrons. “It’s kind of like a laser gun,” Montoya says. “We’ve reimagined the idea of a gun as not being an instrument of destruction but an instrument of creation. When you use the Conglomatron, you are sending energy into the world around you and making it activate and come to life.”
Not unlike what Meow Wolf is doing to Denver’s art scene. “We keep finding that the challenges we are facing in these moments are very similar to the challenges we faced when we were starting out,” Montoya says. “How do we maintain that art-collective ethos while at the same time providing support structures to allow that creativity to be unleashed?”
Meow Wolf has worked with a handful of Denver artists on Kaleidoscape — which uses the same tracks and walls as Ghost Blasters 2 — including Frankie Toan, Laleh Mehran, Kenzie Sitterud, Michael Ortiz, Chris Coleman, Brick Suede and Katie Caron.
Coleman, who also considered working on Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas project at Area 15 but ultimately did not go forward with that plan, is an outspoken champion of the company, and admires its overwhelming financial support of Denver artists. “They have paid significantly more — two to three times — for my time as an artist than any institution in Denver, and I have helped create works or shown in most of them,” he says.
Chuck a stone in Denver’s art world, and you’re likely to smack somebody with cash ties to Meow Wolf...or the hopes of making such ties. Chuck a stone in another direction, though, and you’re just as likely to hit someone with concerns about what Meow Wolf might do to the scene.
The litany of worries is long: Meow Wolf is so big and Denver’s art scene is so underdeveloped, the company could easily destroy what we have. Do we really want outsiders sucking up resources and creative energy and creating the most interesting art project in town? Or will it be that interesting? Earlier this year, Denver artists Sommer Browning and Esteban Peralta created their own artistic bumper sticker with these words: “CASA BONITA IS BETTER THAN MEOW WOLF.”
Even before they announced their Denver project, Montoya and other co-founders visited local studios, then formed a committee comprising people of color, queer people and women to advise Meow Wolf on how to land gracefully here. Meow Wolf has donated funds to groups like the Chicano Humanities Arts Council, the Latino Cultural Arts Council, Youth on Record, the Denver Zine Library and Cabal Gallery; it’s partnered on other projects. In doing so, it has garnered enthusiasm.
“Our mission is to support local artists and support emerging artists,” says Montoya. “We want to make sure that people know that our mission is to create space for artists. It’s not an easy thing to do, to have those conversations and to navigate the politics around that, but nothing worth doing is easy.”
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With Meow Wolf’s astronomic growth, some people worry that the once-ragtag collective has strayed far from its original goals of making art. But for Meow Wolf, art is less noun and more verb.
“When we talk about art, we see art as not a what, it’s a how. It’s not a thing, it’s a way of seeing things,” Montoya says. “When we invite people into our exhibitions, we’re inviting them to engage in a different way of seeing that is very active and curious and questioning. Our hope is that after the experience is over, people will take that way of seeing back into their everyday lives, and it will actually change the way they see the world.”
Can that transformation start at a Denver amusement park?