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Is Meow Wolf Denver Socially Responsible? It May Be Too Soon to Tell

The art collective promised to provide opportunities to locals and give back to the Sun Valley community. Here’s what they’ve done so far—and why the true test is yet to come.

Meow Wolf Denver’s installation, Convergence Station, is aptly named. Not only does its immersive art exhibit tell a story of four converging worlds, but the destination’s triangular building stands at the converging point of several main thoroughfares in Sun Valley—a neighborhood that’s Colorado’s poorest census tract, despite being in the heart of a city that’s exploded economically over the last decade.

Meow Wolf chose that site intentionally. In 2018, then-CEO Vince Kadlubek said that Sun Valley offered more opportunity for positive social impact than other locations that Meow Wolf considered in the Mile High City, including the RiNo area. As a B Corporation, social impact is part of Meow Wolf’s bottom line.

At that time, Meow Wolf was in the early stages of working with a paid community advisory committee to learn the needs and concerns of the area. The group met monthly at the Sun Valley Kitchen & Community Center and attended meetings held by the Sun Valley Community Coalition (SVCC), the area’s Registered Neighborhood Organization, as a way to connect with other organizations, businesses, and residents, and gain insight on how Meow Wolf could responsibly engage with its neighbors.

“It was very much an artist and equity-oriented group of folks that were from around the city,” says Jeanne Granville, president of SVCC and executive director of Sun Valley–based Fresh Start, Inc., “but we also had representatives from Sun Valley … that were really passionate about art and creative expression that sat on that advisory committee.”

The committee identified priorities that Meow Wolf then formally adopted in a Corporate Social Responsibility document, including hiring local Denverites to work at the location, involving local artists in the development of Meow Wolf Denver, subcontracting with local minority- and women-owned businesses, and funding programs and organizations that work with underserved and marginalized youth.

Before many of those priorities could be enacted, however, the committee’s work was disrupted by a lawsuit in late 2019, in which Zoe Williams—who helped start the committee and worked as Meow Wolf’s Denver director of community outreach—and Mar Williams (no relation), an artist working with the organization, made gender discrimination allegations against Meow Wolf.

Many of the committee members weren’t privy to what was going on. “Toward the end of it all, it became difficult for the average community advisory council [member] to know how best to maneuver when there were these fundamental breakdowns in relationship between folks who were supposed to be helping us,” says Molina Speaks, a committee member who was also a contributing artist to Meow Wolf Denver. “Those sorts of things got in the way of the community advisory council’s ability to have streamlined communication with the decision makers. It made things really difficult. And then, of course, we had the pandemic and then everything came to an abrupt end.”

The lawsuit was settled privately in February 2020 (Meow Wolf declined to comment on the case; Zoe Williams could not be reached for comment). Then, in March, the pandemic forced Meow Wolf to close its Santa Fe location and tighten its spending. That’s when the company dissolved the community advisory committee.

“I feel like our work ended prematurely,” Speaks says, though he doesn’t blame Meow Wolf or Williams for that. “It would be a mistake to focus on the drama, which is a lot [of] speculation. … It would be more instructive to focus on the wins that we accomplished together.”

Those wins include Meow Wolf’s first ever public request for proposals (RFP) from local artists, which garnered more than 1,000 submissions and led to contracts for 110 Colorado artists to contribute to Meow Wolf Denver.

Meow Wolf also held an RFP for local food and beverage vendors to operate in its HELLOFOOD cafe. Two Sun Valley entities—Raices Brewing and Osage Cafe, which is part of Denver Housing Authority’s Youth Employment Academy—were selected as Meow Wolf’s primary beer and grab-and-go food vendors, respectively. Raices spent the summer preparing for Meow Wolf’s opening by hiring additional staff and acquiring a canning line. “We’re planning for a 50 to 100 percent increase in beer production,” says Raices CEO Jose Beteta.

This summer, Meow Wolf held a hiring fair in Sun Valley and brought on more local staff, including Joann Asakawa Huntz as program and outreach director. The Colorado native previously worked for the Art Students League of Denver in a similar community outreach role; she says Meow Wolf’s community outreach work is “on a much bigger scale than what I’ve ever done before.”

One of Huntz’s first projects was finalizing Meow Wolf’s good neighbor agreement (GNA) with SVCC. The GNA was passed unanimously by SVCC members, and Granville hopes to use it as a model for other entities that may come into the nearby developing stadium district. The GNA commits Meow Wolf to providing future opportunities for residents to experience Convergence Station, a significant promise for low-income residents considering the $45 cost of general admission. There are also promises of arts education programs for youth and external mural and beautification projects in Sun Valley.

Leading up to the September 17 opening, Meow Wolf gave free tickets to Sun Valley residents through organizations like Denver Housing Authority, Sun Valley Kitchen & Community Center, and Sun Valley Youth Center.

For Speaks and Alfredo Reyes, executive director of the Latino Cultural Arts Center, these wins are good signs that Meow Wolf will follow through on its commitment to positive social impact in Sun Valley. But the story isn’t over yet. Speaks would like to see some sort of community advisory committee reintroduced, whether with the same members as before or all new ones. Reyes would like to see Meow Wolf live up to the ideals expressed in the Convergence Station story about overcoming differences with love and kindness. Both say whether or not Meow Wolf follows through is dependent on what it does with the money made in that odd-shaped building glowing next to Colfax.

“We’re dealing with a massive space that’s about to generate a lot of profit,” Speaks says, “and so the question is, what are they going to do with that profit?”

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