Art lovers who’ve been waiting nearly three years for the opening of Meow Wolf Denver will have to hang on for a little longer. The five-story experiential art museum being built in Sun Valley was originally planned to open in late 2020, but thanks to the pandemic and a resulting loss of resources, Meow Wolf officials have pushed the unveiling back to late 2021.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit this past spring, Meow Wolf closed its Santa Fe location, House of Eternal Return. “That being our only permanent exhibition at the time, [it] was really our single point of cash flow,” says Todd Richins, Meow Wolf’s executive creative director. “We had to look company-wide at how do we manage cash and resources.”

Meow Wolf reorganized internally and adjusted timelines of the Denver project, as well as its upcoming exhibition in Las Vegas, which is slated to open in early 2021.

The reorganization tightened the focus of the Denver exhibition, which is one of Meow Wolf’s most ambitious projects yet. It’s nearly twice the size of the Las Vegas exhibit, and will feature more than 110 local and diverse artists. According to Meow Wolf’s latest progress report, 51 percent of the artists are women, 38 percent are people of color, and 20 percent identify as LGBTQ.

Four of the floors at 1338 1st Street are dedicated exhibitions, with five anchor spaces in which Meow Wolf’s stories will come to life through visual and experiential media, as well as live actors (the first time Meow Wolf will use performers as part of an exhibition). Pandemic- and economic-induced limitations, Richins says, “made us be more lean and more laser-focused on the parts of the exhibition that we are delivering on opening day,” but the entire space is expected to be fleshed out before guests are welcomed in.

No word yet on what the anchor spaces will be: Meow Wolf is keeping details under wraps for the time being. “The anchor spaces are out-of-this-world places,” Richins says, “and I think it’s going to be exciting to see the look on people’s faces when they step into an area.”

House of Eternal Return by Meow Wolf, Santa Fe
Meow Wolf closed its Santa Fe location, House of Eternal Return, last spring when coronavirus hit. Its Denver exhibition is supposed to open in late 2021. Photo by Kate Russell, courtesy of Meow Wolf

Meow Wolf is also developing different ways for visitors to engage with the exhibition. Meow Wolf’s signature feature is interactivity: Visitors touch different elements within exhibitions. At the House of Eternal Return, there are letters, books, and other props that visitors are expected to pick up and read as a way of engaging with the exhibition’s story.

“In the post-COVID world, touching everything isn’t the best way to go about this,” Richins says. His team has been brainstorming other approaches, including a mobile app, QR codes, or RFID (radio-frequency identification) cards that can be tapped at various points in an exhibit to influence the experience.

Right now, the Las Vegas exhibition is planning to use RFID cards that visitors can take home as a souvenir. Denver is on track to be the first Meow Wolf experience with a mobile app to engage with the exhibition. “We want to build into it augmented reality so that when you hold your camera up with the app in the space, we’re actually bringing different elements alive,” Richins says. Denver may also use RFID cards, depending on how they work at the Las Vegas exhibition.

As of this writing, there are no plans for limiting the Denver location’s capacity due to pandemic concerns. Richins says Meow Wolf is working from the assumption that, by late 2021, COVID-19 vaccines will be broadly distributed and society will be functioning, more or less, as normal. However, both the Las Vegas and Santa Fe locations will open (and reopen, respectively) with reduced capacity. If necessary, he says, the same principles can be applied in Denver.

One significant pandemic loss: Meow Wolf’s community advisory committee.

Formed in 2018 by local residents to ensure that Meow Wolf effectively served the surrounding Sun Valley community, the committee was disbanded as part of Meow Wolf’s reorganization this past spring. Richins says there are still members of that committee whom Meow Wolf communicates with and turns to for input and insight, but the committee itself no longer exists in a formal capacity.

“The community advisory committee was hugely beneficial in introducing us to the wider community in Denver and helping us understand this newer marketplace,” Richins says. “I think it’s important for us when we come to a community to engage and understand what our role can be … to help advance artists in that community. And that committee was beneficial to us in that way.”

No one knows what may happen between now and Meow Wolf Denver’s planned opening, but Denverites can rest assured that an art experience like they’ve never seen is on its way.