When 21c opened a decade ago in Louisville, Kentucky, no one knew if it’d be a success or not. 21c is a combination contemporary art museum and boutique hotel chain. The idea to build a new model of a cultural institution whose operational budget wasn’t dependent on donations or admission tickets was unheard of. But Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the art collector founders of 21c, felt the mission was important enough to try. Their goal for 21c was to broaden access to thought-provoking contemporary art because they believed free and public access to art should be a human right.
As it turns out, others agreed. Within a few years, investors and developers from cities across America began reaching out to 21c to inquire about adding locations in their downtown communities. Today, the museum hotel has expanded from its first location in Louisville to several others in Bentonville, Cincinnati, Durham, Lexington, Nashville and Oklahoma City, with more on the way. Whether or not a city already has an established arts scene is less important to 21c, as they see themselves as a strong community partner looking to integrate into established and burgeoning initiatives in cities where they open locations.
Collaborating with Arts-Centric Cities on Museum Hotels
Alice Gray Stites heads 21c’s curatorial efforts which includes everything from permanent architectural installations, to acquisitions and exhibitions, to leading the multi-city curatorial staff and partnering with nonprofit organizations on collaborative programming. Each museum hotel location has its own museum manager that handles the day-to-day coordination of local artists, events and programming. In addition to their other responsibilities, such as leading weekly docent tours, Stites expects her museum hotel managers to be active in each city’s arts scene discovering artists to feature and organizations with which they can partner.
For example, in Cincinnati, a city with a long history in the arts and home to the Cincinnati Art Museum, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the midwest, 21c found a way to naturally fit into the ongoing arts community. The hotel group chose a historic building to renovate and call their home. But it wasn’t just any historic building – it happened to share a wall with the Contemporary Arts Center, a storied 80-year-old arts organization housed in a space designed by the late, great Zaha Hadid and called “the best building since the Cold War” by the New York Times.
From the moment 21c and the Contemporary Arts Center became neighbors, the two organizations worked closely together to support and share one another’s shows with the public. Collaborations between the two neighboring art organizations ranged from sharing exhibition tours (docents from the Contemporary Arts Center would offer their visitors tours of the museum hotel and vice versa) to comprehensive joint curatorial efforts. In 2005, 21c’s Stites and Contemporary Arts Center’s curator Steven Matijcio co-curated Brazilian artist’s Albano Afonso first U.S. museum show, Self Portrait as Light.
Identifying and Supporting Local Artists
In addition to large traveling exhibitions, the museum hotel exhibits both permanent and loaned work throughout the various locations, and they also prioritize working with and elevating local artists. Through a program called Elevate, the museum hotel presents works of local artists in each city. Stites elaborates that “It’s an opportunity to create a sense of place for hotel guests and draw an audience for artists who are working in these cities.” The hotel doesn’t broker sales for the artists, but if a guest expresses interest in a piece, the hotel staff are happy to give them the artist and/or the gallery’s information. In that scenario, the museum hotel would take no cut of the transaction. “We have no interest in being involved commercially,” Stites reiterates. For 21c, what’s important is representing local work and giving neighboring artists the opportunity to expand their reach.
Another program called Pitch Night also helps local artists expand their audiences. Pitch Night is a 21c competition where artists can submit a proposal and compete for a jury prize of $5,000 in order to create an installation at the Western Michigan University during the ArtPrize festival. According to the website, ArtPrize “is an open, independently organized international art competition which takes place for 19 days each fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” At the culmination of the event, a $200,000 prize is awarded entirely by public vote, and another $200,000 prize is awarded by a jury of art experts. The festival creates a great opportunity for upcoming artists to get noticed. “Everyone from the Grand Rapids Art Museum to local mom and pop shops participate to create installations or become part of exhibitions,” Stites says.
If you’re an artist wondering how to get involved with the 21c in your city, follow Stites’ advice: “Get involved in your city’s monthly art crawls.” Don’t just attend though; network and connect with the other artists and curators. Stites reiterates that she and her team are very involved in the arts community in their respective cities and they seek out artists at first and third Friday art walks, gallery openings and end of year MFA exhibitions. If you’re involved in the creative community, chances are, you’ll meet 21c there.
Making Use of Every Square Inch
But at 21c, exhibitions are only one part of the art. Every square inch of a 21c museum hotel has been given careful consideration. Stites is quick to point that “21c doesn’t believe in art as decor, as many hotels do.” If you’re paying attention, you’re likely looking upon artwork. From the front desks to the lighting and the hallways to some of the rooms, art is all around. Here, art is a not the commodity, space without art is.
“We’ve probably acquired half a dozen works from artists who’ve shown artwork through various Elevate programs. In one case, we continued to work with an artist duo from Cincinnati called Future Retrieval. We had put their work in Elevate, borrowed a piece for a traveling show and then went on to commission them to do a large site-specific installation at 21c Durham.” In this case, the artists Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis created eighteen chandeliers, grouped in six clusters, for 21c’s Durham restaurant.
And then there are the rooms, with some known as artist suites, as referred to by Stites. Artist suites are 21c hotel room suites that have been completed imagined and designed by artists. Says Stites, “In Nashville, New York painter Sebastiaan Bremer and musician-composer Josephine Wiggs created a site-specific installation for the artist suite titled “Sanctuary,” Stites says. “I always thought it would be appropriate for 21c Nashville to have some kind of recording studio. So, Sebastian designed what really is a music recording studio with state of the art instruments, recording equipment and a bedroom that replicates his own artist’s studio.”
So if you’re tired of heading to museums and seeing “don’t touch” signs and sick of heading to hotels where you don’t want to touch anything, it’s probably time to visit 21c. By working locally with artists, museums and organizations, this museum hotel not only supports their visitors but also uplifts the local creatives in the cities where they exist. And when most hotels are shipping in international work while artists in their own communities are struggling to make a living, 21c is striking a unique balance. So far, it’s working.