Glowing lights suspended in the air. Mirrored panels. Virtual reality. How to describe Wonderspaces? Think of a large gallery you can walk through — over the course of an hour or an hour and a half — to experience works usually confined to famous festivals and art fairs and created by artists from around the world.
A new Wonderspaces location opens July 10 in Northeast Austin, featuring 12 installations. It’s here to stay, too — the 28,000-square-foot facility is permanent, unlike visually dazzling but temporary art spaces that have set up in Austin before. (Remember Hopscotch?)
In Austin, we’re used to topping lists. Jason Shin, co-founder of Wonderspaces, put us on his list early.
"Austin has been our No. 1 place to open up a permanent location since our very first popup show in San Diego," Shin says. That first Wonderspaces "proof of concept" went up in 2017. A month into the run, Shin says the team figured out that the best way to serve artists and the community was a permanent space, not a pop-up.
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The Austin location sits in an industrial space in the Sheldon Cove development; there are other permanent Wonderspaces locations in Philadelphia and Scottsdale, Ariz. The team first eyed what would become their Austin location three years ago, not long after they had the idea to set up shop in the Texas capital. Its location near the Interstate 35 and U.S. 183 intersection was a draw, hoping it would bring people in, Shin says. They’ve worked to set it up for about six weeks.
Wonderspaces isn’t about social media fodder, Shin emphasizes. Taking pictures is OK, but there are no hashtags or backdrops on the walls. The space is meant for people who "want to take time and experience creativity with friends and family, who aren’t going to museums and galleries," he says.
"Austin’s unique and vibrant arts culture is very well established, very world-renowned," Shin says. "We think we can complement (the) art scene here by being a place for folks who maybe don’t think the arts are for them."
Works featured at Wonderspaces locations have previously been shown at South by Southwest, Sundance Film Festival and Burning Man. The idea is to break down walls that keep the general public from seeing major works of art, Shin says.
Any business opening right now does so against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. After initial shutdowns of nonessential business in March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started opening up the state’s economy in phases on May 1. Since then, cases of COVID-19 and related deaths and hospitalizations have surged throughout the state. Abbott has walked back some of his orders, including shutting down bars again. In Austin, face coverings are now required in public and enforced with a fine, and public gatherings are discouraged.
"First and foremost, delivering a safe experience is our number one priority," Shin says.
He says that Wonderspaces is keeping its capacity under a quarter of its 750 maximum. The idea is to make sure the space is never crowded, and to keep interactions at a minimum. The now-normal battery of precautions are in place, too: required masks, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer, temperature checks, no cash, tickets purchased in advance. Employees rotate through the building and clean commonly touched surfaces. Shin says they’ve reengineered parts of the show to minimize touching, and where there would usually be staffers posted to direct folks, Wonderspaces now uses a digital guide to help guests through the installations.
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The team at the Austin location of Wonderspaces is made up of local creatives, Shin says. They’ll steer what future shows look like. New installations will start to cycle into the space in the fall.
Shin says he wants to do right by both visitors and artists, who — with art festivals and fairs canceled amid the pandemic — need exposure now more than ever.
Wonderspaces (1205 Sheldon Cove, Suite 2-A) is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $24 for ages 13 and older, $15 for children ages 3-12 and free for children younger than 3. Tickets for students, seniors and military members are $20. All tickets must be purchased in advance and for a specific date and time at austin.wonderspaces.com.