Redefining Respite: The Chief Curator of 21C Museum Hotels, Alice Gray Stites

 In Culture, Feature

To get the full experience of a groundbreaking American contemporary art museum, you’d need to book seven domestic flights or fuel up the car for a 2,000-mile road trip. Your journey would take you on a winding loop across the heartland Midwest and the South Rim, past cornfields and bison ranches, nowhere near any kind of coast. There’d be stops in the expected creative powerhouses like Nashville, a few in emerging visual-arts hubs like Oklahoma City and Raleigh, as well as one surprising detour to an Arkansas town with a population under 50,000 that’s better known for its Walmart headquarters. Each time you parked the car or cabbed it out of the airport terminal, your destination would be the same: another wing of the sprawling, multi-state museum known as 21c. And each time, when you arrived at the museum’s front desk, they’d welcome you, and ask if you’d like to spend the night.

If the word “museum” brings to mind a single, Greek-pillared downtown building where security guards quietly usher you out at 5 p.m., it’s OK if you need a moment to catch up. Because in many ways, 21c Museum Hotels are shaking up the notion of what a contemporary art institution can do—and along the way, they also just so happen to be revolutionizing the hospitality industry, too.

Redefining Respite: The Chief Curator of 21C Museum Hotels, Alice Gray Stites

Before it opened its first location in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006, 21c wasn’t necessarily meant to be a hotel at all. “The idea started with the desire to create a very accessible museum dedicated to contemporary art that would not charge people admission prices or be dependent upon memberships,” chief curator and museum director Alice Gray Stites says. “Our founders, [philanthropists and art collectors] Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, had been collecting contemporary work for many years and sharing it with people in their hometown [of Louisville], and they wanted to share it with the public. They’re also passionate about preservation and urban revitalization, and they wanted to do something about their downtown. It appeared that one thing Louisville needed was more hotel rooms, and, well, that’s how 21c Museum Hotels was founded.”

That’s a humble way of describing the seemingly accidental origins of what became a thoroughly radical ambition. When they first envisioned 21c, Brown and Wilson didn’t just find a convenient way to address downtown blight while also bringing a little color and style to their hometown. They created a space that brings cutting-edge international art into the very heart of America’s “second-tier” cities—which, as insiders know, are often home to world-class art scenes just waiting to be discovered—and in doing so, shining the kind of spotlight that can elevate an entire region, both economically and artistically. That these spaces are also luxury hotels whose guests’ room fees fully support the museum’s operations—well, all that’s just the icing on the cake.

All 21c galleries are free, available to every member of the public regardless of whether they’re holding a room key, and open 24 hours a day. (Yes, you can wander in off the streets of Cincinnati at two in the morning and marvel at a Serkan Özkaya video installation if you’d like). The galleries have also grown from housing a few choice pieces at a time from the couple’s personal collection into a dynamic, constantly evolving museum that spans seven states and 80,000 square feet of gallery space (That’s 30,000 more than the Whitney, if you’re counting). That makes 21c the largest and only museum in North America dedicated solely to displaying work created after the turn of the millennium.

And they’re not done expanding yet: A Des Moines, Iowa, location is opening in 2021, and the company’s recent acquisition by global hotel conglomerate AccorHotels has set journalists buzzing about possible locations in Miami, Chicago, New Orleans and even overseas. “We haven’t talked about any locations beyond North America yet, but stay tuned,” Stites teases.

Redefining Respite: The Chief Curator of 21C Museum Hotels, Alice Gray Stites

So what makes 21c a single, unified museum across a vast space, rather than a diffuse network of micro-museums that happen to share a name and an attached-hotel concept? Or consider the opposite concern: How deeply can each 21c location possibly engage with its local arts community when the overarching institution has tentacles in over half a dozen communities and counting?

For Stites, the paradox of running a national museum that reaches across hundreds of miles isn’t a problem—it’s the point, and in many ways, it’s the business’ greatest strength. “When you come to any 21c, it really does feel like you’re walking into a much larger museum space,” she says. “It’s usually quite active and full of people from the community. For example, last night in Louisville, there was a group of local classical musicians who had composed new pieces in response to the exhibition here. It was just a regular Sunday night, and there were probably 60 people, many of them hotel guests, enjoying that and mingling with the locals. Everyone knows that they can come in and wander around. It makes for a wonderfully welcoming hospitality experience. There’s always something going on; It feels lively.”

21c is finding innovative ways to become that kind of gathering place and to walk the high-wire between local and global, intimate and expansive. In a recent photography-focused exhibition, “Labor and Materials,” curators explored how the realities of work have morphed in the age of automation and depersonalized global commerce, sometimes with brutal consequences for workers’ lives—and it was not incidental that the show went up first at the Bentonville, Arkansas, location—the town that’s also home to the Walmart headquarters. One show at 21c Cincinnati, on the other hand, focuses on how one of the city’s local artists views the larger world: They’re currently exhibiting the work of photographer Peiter Griga, who documented several cross-country trips that were inspired by geo-tagged Twitter messages from strangers, each of which “evoke the process of being forgotten.” The resulting dispatches create a visual narrative of national melancholy that feels eerily intimate, despite the work’s anonymous, far-flung inspirations.

Each 21c location is outfitted with a local chef-driven restaurant, and Stites and her museum team are careful to commission site-specific installations that engage the surrounding culture every bit as deeply as the hotel’s more traditional white-box spaces. She’s particularly excited about the work currently on display at the flagship Louisville location, from the Los Angeles-based art collective known as Fallen Fruit. By using the hotel arm of 21c Louisville as an ersatz residency over the course of months worth of visits to the city, the artists were able to gradually learn and then retell the history of Louisville through a dense multi-media array that doesn’t shy away from the less-pristine aspects of the region’s history.

“Each room covers the history of food production and distribution in this part of the world,” Stites says. “You have excerpts from diaries that are in the archives at the University of Louisville, excerpts from political cartoons, articles about runaway slaves, about the big flood of 1937—anything that effected the production of food and labor that went into farming and food in this part of the world. We feel that it was successful, because the rituals of everyday life, and particularly of sharing a meal, is maybe the ideal setting in which to examine who we are, who we want to be, and what’s happening in the world. That’s what art allows us to do.”

Stites is so articulate and persuasive that you’d almost forget that she’s still talking about decorating a restaurant dining room. After all, the kind of art you usually see in a hotel bar doesn’t prompt any kind of rigorous examination of the foundations of modern society; If anything, it’s precision-engineered to be ignored as you eat your clam chowder and go on your way. In a mainstream hospitality industry that’s better known for adorning their rooms with Thomas Kinkade landscapes and infinitely reproducible abstract prints that lull guests into a sense of comforting sameness, 21c’s approach doesn’t just feel unusual—it feels pioneering.

Redefining Respite: The Chief Curator of 21C Museum Hotels, Alice Gray Stites

Stites, though, is careful to make it clear that her museum’s intention is not to shock, but to encourage travelers and locals alike to be more engaged with the complexities of their surroundings and more thoughtful about the spaces they occupy, even if they’re only visiting for a day. “We think of the art that we share as thought-provoking, certainly, but not intentionally provocative,” she says. “There are going to be exhibitions that address what’s going on in the world today—and of course, we live in complicated times.”

It seems clear, though, that Stites thinks that vigorous engagement with stimulating experiences is exactly what the modern traveler craves, and it’s her role as museum curator to provide that. And her responsibility doesn’t end at the gallery walls. An overnight 21c guest will find themselves literally transported from the street-level museum into a micro-exhibit in the hotel elevator—these are usually reserved for a single emerging local artist, often from a local master of fine-arts program—followed by a true luxury hospitality experience that integrates the fine-art concept into a space of true respite. An original print adorns each room, as well as what Stites describes as “a whole world of art behind your screen”: each television is even pre-set to the museum’s bespoke Art Channel, which spotlights video-based works from current and past exhibitions at 21c galleries, as well as interviews with the artists whose work is on display. Exciting personal touches like this are just one advantage of having a museum that can also comfortably house your exhibiting artists for a deluxe weekend away in exchange for a quick conversation about their latest inspirations.

Of course, not every traveler would consider watching video art in bed the ultimate in vacation relaxation. “But it depends on how you define respite, right?” Stites says. “It’s a subjective experience. Many people find it refreshing and renewing to be able to get a glass of wine or a beer and walk around the galleries, spend time in the video lounge at 10 or 12 o’clock. I think people find having free access to the art at all hours to be a really unique experience. It helps you feel transformed, to get a new perspective on life.” What more can the best travel experiences—and the best art—do for us?

Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Volume 18, Issue 1, available now online. You can order a print copy here or pick one up at these locations.

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