DENVER — Meow Wolf opened 2021 with no ticket revenue since March 2020, COVID-19 was at its highest spread rate across the country and no one really knew when visitors could return to the experiential arts company’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
Nine months later, COVID-19 once again is on the march, but so is Meow Wolf.
The Santa Fe arts juggernaut has made a quantum leap, attracting more than 256,000 visitors since throwing open its doors in Santa Fe in March, reveling in a successful opening in Las Vegas, Nev., with more than 600,000 tickets sold since February and a sweeping debut in Denver with 110,000 tickets sold by the time it opened Friday.
Meow Wolf now has nearly 1,000 employees in three states after dropping to as low as 270 in the nadir of coronavirus lockdowns a year ago. The company now has nearly 500 workers in Santa Fe at its creative engine on the south side and the House of Eternal Return, with another 250-plus new employees each in Las Vegas and Denver.
Meow Wolf does not disclose revenue figures, but Las Vegas and Santa Fe generated about $38 million in ticket revenue this year so far based on attendance figures and averaging out Las Vegas ticket prices at $50 each and Santa Fe at $30 each. The Denver tickets already sold add another $5 million based on $45 ticket prices. Meow Wolf also has revenue from concerts, gift shops and food service.
Still, the question remains: Where will the next quantum leap take place?
For the first time in nearly four years, there are no announced next Meow Wolf expansions. The company has kept mum about the future beyond the Friday opening in Denver, which was first announced in January 2018 along with Las Vegas.
“Very soon we will be able to talk about the future,” said Ali Rubinstein, one of three Meow Wolf CEOs in what the company refers to as the OCEO, or office of the chief executive officers.
Rubinstein and fellow co-CEO Carl Christensen revealed few clues during an exclusive interview with The New Mexican following a Monday media event in Denver preceding the opening of Convergence Station.
Christensen did say more than 100 potential locations across the country have been looked at, but he and Rubinstein gave no indication how many states or cities are under serious consideration.
But don’t expect Meow Wolf in Paris anytime soon.
“We’re seriously looking domestically at the moment with a future eye at international,” Rubinstein said.
In the meantime, there remains fallout from a cataclysmic 2020. But the Meow Wolf creative shops in the former Caterpillar tractor building were busy building future exhibits and top leaders were continuing a four-year process of transforming a ragtag artist operation that opened House of Eternal Return in 2016 into an efficient, organized, professional operation able to produce massive installations such as Convergence Station.
“We looked at scaling,” said Rubinstein, employing the word to describe how the company’s work evolved to the ability to construct new installations in three or four or five or more new cities at a time instead of just one or two.
Meow Wolf weathered the silent cash registers through the first year of the pandemic with the funding available from 87 investors who committed $158 million to Meow Wolf in May 2019, Christensen said.
“Some of those funds helped us proceed with Las Vegas and Denver and helped keep us alive during the pandemic,” he added. “We have the ability to keep going. There is definitely a plan in place to finance our future. We are confident in our ability to expand.”
The pandemic also saw 130 Meow Wolf employees successfully unionize. The Meow Wolf Workers Collective, Communications Workers of America Local 7055, now has 145 members, but a contract has not yet been ratified, said Carrie Taylor, a member of the organizing committee.
“The first contract is always so hard,” Taylor said. “There has been some recent very positive progress with negotiations. Working conditions have not changed, but there is now a hope that some changes can come to fruition.”
Even with the union organizing in 2020, the Las Vegas and Denver attractions opened in 2021 as intended, but those cities were not included in the the Meow Wolf Workers Collective.
“We worked very hard to ensure we were ultimately able to do this,” Rubinstein said. “It was not an option for this not to happen. We all had to come through. We solidified the team with the same focus.”
And creating the four-story, 90,000-square-foot Convergence Station in Denver was a monumental challenge, led by Sean Di Ianni, one of Meow Wolf’s six founders in 2008.
“Denver was always on our radar, even when we were a collective,” Di Ianni said at Convergence Station. “Denver was always close to our heart.”
Di Ianni happened upon the most unlikely plot for a major attraction: a forgotten industrial location with a remaining warehouse — a former Midwest Steel site — wedged between the elevated Colfax Avenue and an elevated, curving onramp.
“When I first saw this site, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is impossible,’ ” said Di Ianni, invoking a refrain that Meow Wolf artists have likely repeated throughout the company’s history. “But I love it. All the transportation [around it] inspired the theme of the show. We love it because it wasn’t displacing anyone and wasn’t blocking anyone’s view. We love this urban infill site.”
The structure was designed by SAR+, a Denver architecture firm.
“Meow Wolf was bringing an extremely ambitious vision to Denver,” Ryan Meeks, a senior associate at SAR+, wrote in an email. “This site would be illogical for most buildings, but for Meow Wolf, it creates the perfect exterior impression. For everyone on the team, this was a project without precedent. Meow Wolf trusted the team [and] that led ultimately to extremely creative solutions. This project was created through a pure will to make it real.”
Transportation is the initial surreal experience of even getting to Convergence Station. The route from Interstate 25 requires visitors to pass by Meow Wolf and double back through a portion of Metropolitan State University and duck under an overpass.
“We were inspired by transit and transportation,” Di Ianni said. “This site itself is a convergence of the Platte River, the freeway and a highway.”