Nobody knows exactly what Meow Wolf Denver will be – that’s part of the intrigue that will unfold when the hipster art and entertainment installation opens on September 17th at the intersection of I-25 and the Colfax Avenue Viaduct. But one thing that’s already as clear as the eyeballs of a fluffy British Shorthair is that Meow Wolf is giving a much-needed boost to Denver’s pandemic-ravaged employment sector.
According to the SCFD, the pandemic has wiped out at least a third of all jobs in the creative sector through layoffs, vacation or elimination. That’s more than 50,000 livelihoods. And that only applies to those who have been employed in quantifiable, payroll-like jobs. That doesn’t even affect the thousands of paid concert and performance opportunities that actors, dancers, musicians, comics and technicians lost during the shutdown.
Life as an artist always meant moving quickly from one gig to the next. A decent band could hit a paid set at a local club every two months. When an actor gets a role in a play or musical it can take six or eight weeks – then it goes on. A visual artist lives precariously from one sold piece to the next. Not only did the pandemic take most of it, it also took away secondary sources of income like bartenders and waiting tables. And COVID spared no one, including Meow Wolf, who laid off or took leave of 250 of his own employees when no revenue came into the company’s Santa Fe headquarters.
Still, Meow Wolf is the unicorn of artistic preoccupation for the creative community in Denver. Most jobs are full-time, social security and often represent the unattainable grail: permanent, stable, permanent employment for creative people. In numbers that are astounding.
“We’re hiring more than 300 people to manage the building and guest experience,” said Alex Bennett, general manager of Meow Wolf. Of these, around 210 are full-time positions on an hourly basis and around 120 are salaried employees.
Outside of the Denver Center, there may not be 120 paid jobs in the combined total of the Colorado theater community.
Meow Wolf is hiring creative staff to build, maintain, support, and operate the gallery’s vast exhibition space, which will span four floors and 90,000 square feet. Instructors, most of them with a performance background, serve as interactive guides who play on-the-fly characters as they guide guests through the narration. Others are hired to work in the cash register, restaurant, guest services, security, and caretaker departments.
In addition, Meow Wolf commissioned 110 artists from Colorado, whose 79 interactive installations form the immersive world of the Denver experience, Meow Wolf’s third largest and largest to date.
It bears the title “Convergence Station” and is described as “the first station on a quantum journey of exploration and discovery” in which passengers traverse new worlds and lure labyrinthine mysteries from their living walls, portals and wormholes.
“That’s absolutely,” said Jessica Austgen, “the cool job in Denver.”
Known in Colorado’s theater and comedy communities, Austgen has been hired as the performance manager of Meow Wolf. Their job is to train and support around 100 employees, so-called “creative operators” – even more during the summer and holiday periods. She describes her roles as partly scripted, partly improvised as they help bring the physical art to life for the audience.
In other words, they get paid to play. And many of the names are notable in the Colorado creative community. Austgen himself is a prolific playwright, actor, improviser, director, podcaster, and theater educator who was named Colorado’s 2018 Theater Person of the Year by the True West Awards. After decades with the DCPA Theater Company, Brenda Lawson will be the cloakroom manager. The title of escape room innovator Cody Borst is Exhibit Maintenance Lead. Well known in local rock circles, public relations manager Erin K. Barnes is the author of a new memoir entitled “Glory Guitars: Memoir of a ’90s Teenage Punk Rock Grrrl”.
Local cast members on Austgen’s crew include Austin Terrell, who most recently directed the Alamo Drafthouse’s Westminster cinemas; aspiring local actors Adeline Mann, Lisa Gaylord, and Seth Palmer-Harris; and improvisational comedians Chris Gallegos, Arantxa Chavez and Graham Marsden. Another role-playing instructor will be young Noah Jackson, who made a little history in 2018 when a short play he wrote as part of a student theater competition became the first story in the 40-year history of dealing with the subject the Denver Center dealt with gender identity.
Impressive installation artists include Kalyn Heffernan – best known as MC of local rap band Wheelchair Sports Camp and now composer of the upcoming original adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” by the Phamaly Theater Company at Su Teatro; Collin Parson, director of the Arvada Center galleries; Joseph Lamar, a musician and actor who starred in Aurora Fox’s 2018 musical “Passing Strange”; Andrew Novick, Denver’s Flavor Maker for All Culturally Weird Things; and Molina Speaks, a poet, an architect with a living word and a “human bridge”.
Several other locals are involved in other Meow Wolf installations. John Ashton, the longtime theater icon of Denver, is prominently represented as a digital figure in the exhibition in Las Vegas.
After the ravages of 2020, these jobs mean something to those who have them now. Like Austgen, who had 10 freelance contracts a year only to lose them all after the shutdown.
“Everything was difficult,” she said. “Leaving after a year and a half of uncertainty and pulling yourself up on the bootstraps and having to use your own possibilities is a great burden. Suddenly there is this company that says, ‘Here is a door: go through it. You no longer have to do everything by yourself. They work for us now. ‘ It’s an exhalation. And to join something with a track record and stability is particularly nice. “
Bennett says Meow Wolf’s investment in local artists is just part of the company’s greater commitment to the artist community and to the low-income and impoverished Sun Valley neighborhood it has just joined. Meow Wolf, he says, will have ongoing discussions about public art projects, neighborhood improvements, and cleanups. And it will work with the Denver Housing Authority to provide affordable access for low-income families and Denver Public Schools students. It’s all part of the radical progressive spirit that Meow Wolf was founded on, Bennett said.
“Meow Wolf is the only entertainment company in the country legally registered as a B-Corp (or not for profit),” he said. “This means that we are committed to many different things, such as inclusiveness, equity, social responsibility, giving something back to our community, doing our part to improve the environment and offering our employees a living wage.”
Denver’s opening date announcement last week garnered worldwide media attention. And that, Bennett said, was not only good for Meow Wolf, but also for Denver and its artist community. “Our message that Denver is already such an amazing art city may not be understood by people in New York, Los Angeles or Paris,” he said. “We are helping to shed light on the darkness, and we will continue to do so for a long time.”
Best of all, though, is that Meow Wolf puts creative people to work. “And we don’t want this ever to end,” he said.
Denver Gazette columnist John Moore is an award-winning journalist named one of the Top 10 Influential Theater Critics by American Theater Magazine. Today he produces independent journalism as part of his own company Moore Media.