From a personal perspective, the 21c Museum Hotel is one of my favorite arts-related venues to visit. From its interactive artworks that engage the visitor with the work, to its cutting-edge gallery exhibits that address the hottest topics of the day, every step taken on a visit through the 21c is compellingly art-driven. And, as you’ll read in my interview with 21c co-founder Steve Wilson, that was the intent from the start.
Pairing the desire to renovate existing structures in Louisville for a hotel property while making contemporary art a part of more peoples’ daily lives, philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson set out on a journey to create the 21c Museum Hotel.
Much more than just a place to spend the night, 21c is an innovative union of genuine Southern hospitality, thoughtful design, and culinary creativity — all anchored by world-class contemporary art by today’s emerging and internationally acclaimed artists (hence the name, paying homage to the 21st century).
21c Museum Hotel, Business Award
Kentucky Arts Council: What role do the arts, artists and artwork play in the 21c business model?
Steve Wilson: As I have said many times, we are first an art experience and second a hotel. Our architects understand that we design our spaces to better exhibit art, and we commission artists to collaborate with the architects to come up with unique elements that our guests have come to love and look forward to experiencing.
We say that the art brings people in, but the hospitality brings them back. It’s a simple, yet surprisingly unique model.
KAC: What role has the 21c played in creative placemaking as a community development tool in Louisville?
SW: I think this is a question that might better be asked of the mayor or some of the Convention and Visitors Bureau staff, but we are very proud of what we have done for the community.
21c has played an important role in the revitalization of our downtown, proving that art can be an economic driver. Four empty buildings at the corner of 7th and Main Street have turned out to be a cultural center with programming provided free and 24 hours a day. The foot traffic on our block is markedly increased and our parking garage is always full. Obviously, these two simple facts translate into more business for all our neighbors. Our red penguin has been adopted as an icon for the city as it appears in tourism and downtown development advertising, and city officials make reference to our success to visitors and potential prospects. Art invigorates, it stimulates and it illustrates the genesis of the creative mind. All these feelings, emotions or experiences enhance and energize the business community and draws more customers and clients to downtown.
We have 180 employees in Louisville alone, and those are all new jobs and new taxes being generated.
KAC: How has the community responded to the 21c since it opened, and were you surprised in any way to that response?
SW: Since the first day we opened seven years ago, we have been overwhelmed and humbled by our success. The readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine have voted 21c Louisville the No. 1 Hotel in the U.S. twice. This tells me that people are responding to our efforts and have embraced the experience of 21c. We never expected to be opening more than one property, but many people from lots of different cities have encouraged us to come to their hometowns and do this all over again. Our hotels compete against some of the best brands in the best cities in the U.S. and still come out on top. It’s truly inspiring to see that kind of reaction to contemporary art.
KAC: How important is community support of the museum-hotel, and why is that support important?
SW: Community support is the lifeblood of 21c! What makes 21c so unique as a hotel is that our properties are in many ways as much for local residents as they are for travelers. We offer artist lectures, yoga with art, film nights, poetry readings and other live performances. And most importantly, we collaborate with arts organizations around Louisville to help enrich the cultural life of the city.
KAC: Why do you feel it is important to exhibit contemporary art, specifically?
SW: Contemporary artists are usually dealing with the issues with which we as a society are struggling. This is our way of allowing people to talk about subjects that may be uncomfortable or to laugh together at a work that they find comical. It’s about shared experience. All art was at some time contemporary. Artists are often also history documentarians.
KAC: In its role as an art museum, what experiences and opportunities does the 21c provide to visitors they won’t find elsewhere, especially in Kentucky?
SW: Who can say what a person will experience or remember from a visit to a 21c? I know that photography can take you around the world while standing in one spot … painting can take you deep into rich color and often create a mood or emotion with color alone … video can elicit anger, awe, compassion and even tears.
One of our artist friends said that art is only the paper or paint or wood with which an object is made. The reaction to the work by people who are observing, be it elevating or even embarrassing, is really coming from within the person. So, we like to provoke and stand back and let the public determine what they choose to take away.
Emily B. Moses, communications director