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  • (Left to right) Charlotte, Katie, Harry and Willa Clark in “Flow”, an exhibition of Babaroosa prototypes

The United States Department of Agriculture announced on May 24 that it had issued a $4.75 million loan guarantee to support the development of a new type of Vermont arts destination called Babaroosa. The 20,000 square foot multi-sensory experiential venue is set to open at the Essex Experience in 2024.

Babaroosa co-founders Teresa and Robert Davis said the USDA guarantee helped secure a loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority. This loan, along with another from the Vermont Federal Credit Union, totals $7.25 million.

“But this is just the beginning,” said Robert, an acupuncturist, medical researcher and entrepreneur. His wife is the founding director of Davis Studio, an art school in South Burlington.

The Davises said their multi-faceted permanent art installation would cost around $23 million to build and launch. They named it after the babirusa, a spiral-tusked boar depicted in an Indonesian rock painting estimated to be around 45,000 years old. When the painting was discovered in 2017, experts determined it was the oldest figurative art in the world.

The couple said Babaroosa will employ about 45 full-time people as well as dozens of Vermont artists and other creatives who will collaborate to create the 60 wave-themed exhibits at the venue. Some will be iconic anchor spaces, while others will change periodically. The Davises Project, approximately 500,000 people a year will visit Babaroosa from all over New England.

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Babaroosa co-founder Teresa Davis and creative collaborator Rob Hunter - COURTESY

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  • Babaroosa co-founder Teresa Davis and creative collaborator Rob Hunter

That number far exceeds the 350,000 who flock annually to Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury Ice Cream Factory, Vermont’s current top destination. But the Davises point to the success of Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf — a similar type of large-scale permanent immersive art installation with three locations in the United States — which they see as inspirational. There is nothing like it yet in the Northeast.

The couple lived in Santa Fe before moving to Burlington many years ago and did extensive market analysis comparing the two cities. The results are encouraging, they say. “We have eight times more people within a three-hour drive than Santa Fe,” Robert noted.

“It’s weatherproof, year-round fun for all ages. This is the niche that could be filled,” said Teresa. “It would put Vermont on the map in a really unique way.”

Towards Babaroosa’s start-up costs, project partner and Essex Experience owner Peter Edelmann will contribute $5 million in real estate, where the venue will be located. The Davises are also in the process of raising $10.8 million in equity from investors. They declined to say how much they had gotten so far, but said Roxanne Scully, who co-founded Burlington’s Hula with her husband Russ Scully, has been a “very generous fundraiser”.

South Burlington electric plane pioneer Beta Technologies also helped fund two prototypes built in shipping containers. Nicknamed “Flow” and “Mushroom Forest,” they are examples of the different experiences Babaroosa visitors will pay $36 ($26 for students and seniors) to explore during a two- to three-hour tour.

Mushroom Forest immersive art prototype for Babaroosa - COURTESY

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  • Mushroom Forest Immersive Art Prototype for Babaroosa

Teresa described Flow as a primarily visual experience, “a color bath experience with really a lot of flowing energy”. Mushroom Forest is more of a tactile experience with lots of different textures and layers, she said. Neither is currently open to the public.

The couple said they were motivated to create Babaroosa after witnessing the power of immersive art to engage people of all ages and positively impact health and well-being.

“As an art educator and artist, I have a long interest in installation and immersive art,” said Teresa. When Davis Studio was located on Pine Street, his team created two small, immersive experiences for the South End Art Hop in 2015 and 2106.

To help people think about immersive art, Teresa explained, “Usually when someone says ‘art,’ you think of a picture in a frame on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal.”

Immersive art, on the other hand, “is like walking inside a work of art,” she continued. “Art will cover the floor, cascade from the ceiling. You are surrounded by art in a way that you can be part of the art, and in some cases you can interact with the art,” he said. she said, “It moves you along the continuum from being a spectator to being more of a participant.”

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Charlotte Clark in an exhibition of Babaroosa prototypes - COURTESY

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  • Charlotte Clark in an exhibition of Babaroosa prototypes

The Davises also believe Babaroosa has the potential to offer more than entertainment.

Robert has vivid memories of the couple’s first visit to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe in early 2017. Looking at the other guests, the medical researcher said, “If I could have done an MRI of their brains right now, we would have [have seen] cool stuff is happening. People had this delighted look whether they were 80 or 8 and everyone in between.

Research has documented, Robert said, how “just plain old art museums” can help people with chronic pain, depression and PTSD. “I saw it through the gender lens, Wow, it’s an experience that’s not just entertainment.”

The Davises have acknowledged the influence of Meow Wolf, which created its first location in Santa Fe in 2016 and launched two more in Las Vegas and Denver in 2021. In a September 24, 2021 New York Times reviewer of the 90,000 square foot Denver Meow Wolf, art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote, “Anyone looking to get blown away, then again, will consider Meow Wolf a fun and exciting home.”

“Although Meow Wolf is our inspiration,” Teresa said, “I would say we have a different sensibility and aesthetic.”

Karen Mittelman, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Arts Council, agrees that Babaroosa is a heavy weight to bear. She also believes it will invigorate the arts community and spark great economic and cultural vitality in the state.

“It’s a huge, bold, mind-blowing project,” Mittelman said.

As someone with a perspective on the national art scene, Mittelman noted that Meow Wolf has been “a pretty spectacular success.” But, she added, “You can’t take a cultural attraction from somewhere else and drop it in Vermont. Babaroosa is truly built with Vermont communities and artists and creatives in mind. It is important.”