Ten years after its conception, the irreverent hotel group has become an important ambassador for art in Middle America.
By Nate Storey
Photos by Luke Sharrett
November 1, 2016
It’s 11 p.m. at the newest 21c outpost in Oklahoma City, and a group of women are in the lobby screening room, twirling in chairs shaped like tops as rodeo footage plays on a loop. Just outside, near Chinese artist Chen Lei’s “The Big Kiss,” a life-size sculpture of a polar bear dropping from the sky to kiss a young child, a handsomely dressed couple is shuffling around artist Daniel Rozin’s “Penguins Mirror,” a motion-activated installation of rotating stuffed Antarctic birds. A few feet away in the entrance to the southern-inspired restaurant, Mary Eddy’s, an older gentleman is tracing the air with his finger, trying to outline artist James Clar’s “River of Time,” an acrylic-conveyor-belt clock referencing the Albert Kahn-designed building’s past life as a Model T plant. Given where this was happening, in a city known as the Big Friendly, whose identity is defined by oil fracking, conservative politics, and a notorious domestic bombing incident in the ’90s, it was a striking display of public engagement with the arts.
But then again, discovering modern art can be a serendipitous moment. “People walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, it’s an upside-down polar bear,’” says Michaela Slavid, the on-site museum manager and former editor at Artforum. When she tells them it’s part of the current exhibition, the light bulb flips on. Yes, they do in fact like contemporary art. “It’s really fun to see that switch.”
Scenes like this are unfolding at 21c locations across the American belts, from Bible to Rust. Executive chef Jason Campbell, a veteran of the brand who previously worked in the Cincinnati location’s kitchen and helped open Lexington’s restaurant, Lockbox, especially enjoys seeing visitors bridge the gap. He views each property’s culinary space as a gateway to the art. “The majority of people who come through our doors have never walked into a museum voluntarily, but they’re coming to eat, stay, or just check it out because they heard about it,” he says, adding, “Drinks and a walk around the museum [open 24 hours]—that’s the best date in the city, no question.”
The building blocks of the expanding constellation of 21c began in Louisville. Created in 2006 by philanthropist couple Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the brand’s first hotel opened in a repurposed tobacco warehouse to much curiosity. The concept, like a hearty Kentucky burgoo stew, is greater than the sum of its parts: Reactivate desolate downtown enclaves across the country by creating a space for the community to engage with, where world-class contemporary art and high design intersect with James Beard-nominated chefs and award-winning cocktail programs. And similar to the Bluegrass State’s official dish, every 21c puts its own spin on the central recipe.
The Louisville hotel, which took over a corner block on the formerly run down Museum Row, is on the leading edge of new hospitality frontiers. The museum has its own collection, commissions site-specific installations, and curates traveling exhibitions. Embedded within the property, the museum informs the entire guest experience; yes, there are dedicated galleries, but, in a sense, every open cranny is a potential place to show art. (See the narrow courtyard viewed from a lobby window where “Cloud Rings,” three ultrasonic humidifiers by artist Ned Khan, ejects plumes of mist.) Even more surprising is the petri dish where this “happy accident” was born, right in the heart of middle America, in the city that bourbon built.
Ten years later,Wilson and Brown have set off a wave of intrigue that has flowed into second cities: Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City, and, on the horizon, Nashville, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. Each offshoot is designed by New York architect Deborah Berke, the new dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture.
The brand is fast becoming one of the most important ambassadors of contemporary art, in terms of scope and reach, in what many New Yorkers and Angelinos deride as “flyover country.” “It’s incredible what happens in a community when you put accessible and free art in it,” says Alice Gray Stites, the company’s chief curator and museum director. “It’s transformative for the people living in these cities. It brings them together.”
Stites formerly served as the adjunct curator for Louisville’s Speed Museum before becoming the director of the non-profit Art Without Walls. Her role with 21c is unlike any of her past positions in that she’s essentially the caretaker of a museum, well,without walls. “Think of it as one entity. The exhibitions travel to buildings that are all very different,” she says. “There’s no model. It’s exciting—and terrifying.”
In order to avoid being seen as an interloper, Stites focuses on forging strong partnerships with local organizations in every city where a new location opens. In Cincinnati, the century-old Metropole Hotel building now houses a 21c, which opened in 2012 and shares a wall with the city’s Contemporary Arts Center. They collaborate on projects, co-curate shows, and the CAC even trains its docents to give visitors tours of the hotel’s exhibitions. It’s a model that caught Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s eye, compelling her to invest in bringing the brand to Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2013, to complement her family’s Moshe Safdie-designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The two join forces on everything from art contests to a yearly Light Night Party, where attendees wander interactiveshows in glow-in-the-dark costumes.
The choice of destinations also illustrates 21c’s position as a vanguard of American re-urbanization, a movement, fueled by the high cost of living on the coasts, that is turning the nation’s interior into fertile territory for innovation. As a result, downtown centers are being reinvigorated by young creatives and entrepreneurs. For its part, 21c has earned a reputation for breathing new life into dilapidated structures. “All but one of the hotels are located in historic buildings, many of which were designed by great architects of the past,” Berke says, name-checking Albert Kahn, McKim, Mead & White, and Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. “We approach each project with fresh eyes, and each one reflects its city because we believe activating downtown buildings is good for communities.”
The impact is already being felt in Oklahoma City, says Jeremiah Davis, the artistic director at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, who returned to his home state after 10 years in New York. “It’s a huge boon for the city,” he says, noting that his organization has teamed with the hotel to host talks with visiting artists. He marvels at the democratic spirit of 21c, which has a talent for giving an elitist medium a soft edge. “You don’t have to be an insider or have a degree in art history to appreciate it, the whole ‘you need to be this tall to ride the ride,’” he says. “To run a place like this and have a no asshole policy is unheard of.”
This perception is echoed by local feminist artist Marilyn Artus, who’s multimedia American flag work is showing in the “Elevate” exhibition upstairs at OKC, and who has been a fixture on the culture scene for over two decades. She sums up the significance of 21c’s arrival more matter-of-factly. “There are people here who’ve never seen this level of work,” she says. As for the rest of the arts community, “They love this place. They’re always loitering around in here. Everyone wants to have their work shown at 21c.”
Steve Wilson thinks there’s too much damn velvet in the mudroom. “The furniture already has spots,” he says in his buttery drawl, pouring himself a glass of Old Forester. Wilson has a tall, slender build, and a white beard to match a head of well-manicured hair. In Louisville, he’s known for his cherry-red glasses and a puckish grin that gives you a suspicion he’s up to something. From afar, one might even mistake him for a dapper Colonel Sanders, another one of Louisville’s favorite sons.
I’m taking a tour of his redesigned farmhouse, 30 minutes outside the city. To get here I take a road that winds through his sprawling buffalo farm, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and past massive plastic snails by the Cracking Art Group, who also fashioned 21c’s famous penguins, until it finally reaches an 18th-century brick house. Out front stands a towering stone statue of a naked man cut off at the torso. Also on the premises are a horse stable, small lake, anda garden where Mike Wajda, the chef at the hotel’s acclaimed Proof on Main restaurant, grows heirloom ingredients.
It’s a sultry evening. The Ohio River weaves by in the distance and the maraca buzz of the cicadas is deafening. It’s hard to imagine there’s another farmhouse like Wilson’s anywhere in the world. Walking in, I see a cluster of fiberglass mannequins by Chinese artist Zhang Dali hanging from the ceiling above the foyer staircase. Camel sculptures grace the corner of the dining room, across from a glass box storing penis-shaped champagne glasses (Wilson has only used them once, at a dinner party attended by local politicians. As he tells it, some guests did not partake in champagne that night.) His rustic home essentially doubles as a gallery, with works sourced from his and his wife Laura Lee’s travels abroad rotating through different rooms and eventually into one of their hotels.
Wilson has a mythical irreverence among the people who know him, an attribute that manifests itself at 21c. It’s surprising, then, to learn he came from modest beginnings, raised in a devout Methodist household on an ordinary Kentucky farm. His father envisioned a rural life for him, but he developed an interest in theater and art while in high school. He eventually went on to work in the communications department of the governor’s office.
Laura Lee Brown, on the other hand, is your classic Southern belle. Her chaste fashion sense complements a short, curly coif of red hair that pops against her fair complexion. Thanks to her great grandfather, who founded Brown-Forman, the liquor company that owns Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort, the bedrock of her upbringing consisted of white-gloved butlers, fancy dinner parties, and rightward politics. Younger and less educated, Wilson never felt accepted by Brown’s family.
So how did a traditional blue-blooded girl fall for a rabble-rousing farm boy? “I used to read erotic poetry to her on the telephone,” Wilson chuckles. “I thought, what the hell do I got to lose?” After a mutual friend introduced them, and through Wilson’s resolute persistence, the two ended up dating, and eventually got engaged in Pakistan on the tail end of an adventure along the Silk Road.
The duo has often compared 21c to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. If that’s the case, Brown plays the curious Alice, while Wilson is the white rabbit, leading her into a world of unexpected encounters. I rang her up in September to find out how a seemingly incongruous match could flourish for 20 years. “Lordy, who is this person?” she thought on their first meeting. Maybe it was because her prior marriage hadn’t worked out, but there was something beguiling about Wilson. “He challenged so much about my previous life, and the people in his were all so interesting. I found it fascinating to follow him around and meet the next person,” she says. “He’s bigger than life.”
Wilson has a reputation for public antics, which stems from an inherent belief that people who get offended love to get offended again. There was the time he enlisted the retired porn star Annie Sprinkle, who has a degree in sex education, to set up a free clinic on the sidewalk outside of the Louisville hotel, an array of dildos in tow. In 2012, Wilson erected a towering golden replica of Michelangelo’s “David” on the corner of the block. “A woman wrote a letter to the Courier-Journal saying she was appalled, that she could never take her teenage daughter downtown again,” he says. “The same day, we had a woman make a reservation for dinner, and she wanted to be seated where she could see David’s package.”
While he relishes playing provocateur, his mission isn’t frivolous. Wilson compares himself to the four sculptures of naked children by Judy Fox that sit behind the reception desk in Louisville. “It causes you to think,” he says. He also subscribes to the idea that art is an easy place to start tough conversations. Durham’s inaugural exhibition ignited controversy with pieces that portrayed President Obama as the Joker and President George W. Bush as Hitler, a poignant reference to the political polarization across the country. This year, Louisville displayed Al Farrow’s “Wrath and Reverence,” a collection of 3-D churches, synagogues, and mosques constructed with bullets and deconstructed guns. 21c hasn’t shied away from entering feverish public debates, proclaiming the bathrooms at its Durham property gender neutral, with “We Don’t Care” signs on the doors, after North Carolina passed the contentious transphobic legislation House Bill 2; later, they waded into the firestorm in Lexington over whether to remove statues of confederate generals at the courthouse by displaying artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova’s “Unlearn Fear + Hate,” a stainless steel halo inscribed with that mantra, on the facade of the hotel.
It’s a value that Stites champions unwaveringly as she curates the exhibitionsacross all of the properties: “If we don’t have any controversy, I’m not doing my job. We want people to be represented and challenged and freaked out.”
On a Saturday night in Louisville, Monica Mahoney, a Kentucky-bred painter and conceptual artist, is making me look foolish on the Ping-Pong tables, lacing serves into the corners as spectators snicker at my flails. To be fair, she’s working with one very major advantage: She handcrafted the two tables from scratch. We’re at Garage Bar, an offsite 21c venue near the hotel. Locals are spilling out of the refashioned service station, sipping bourbon and cans of IPA. A group is studying Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle,” a mechanized sculpture featuring two vintage sports cars in the midst of a hyper-slow-motion collision.
Mahoney has worked on numerous commissions for the brand and has become close with Wilson and Brown. Our mode of transportation for the night is an old, mirrored Miata she designed as the hotel’s house art car, along with a bejeweled limo. She cites the Ping-Pong tables, made with glowing, translucent cement and bases of crushed, cubed cars from a Canadian junkyard, as an example of the 21c effect. “They cost way too much money, but people love them,” she says. “Steve is a risk-taker, and he can afford to be. He brings the magic and spreads it around.” Wilson’s litmus test for buying art, she says, is not that it be valuable, but that it be fun.
Ten years out from an idea that seemed too implausible to succeed, it appears more fun is yet to come. I remember something Wilson said to me in passing back at the farm. “My big, burning goal is to open in Cuba. We’re hoping that because of our museum core, we can get through faster.” I wouldn’t bet against him. If he’s proven anything on this journey, it’s an ability to pave a path to uncharted territory.