The 21c Museum Hotel and others put contemporary art at the forefront, creating unique cultural experiences.
For some hotels, the spa is everything. For others, it’s all about soaking in culture. America’s hippest hotels are turning into top showcases for cultural experiences and contemporary art. Here’s a look at some of these must-visit artsy hotels.
21c Museum Hotel in Louisville
The gold standard of art-focused hotels is the Louisville-based chain 21c Museum Hotels, aka 21st Century Cool. Husband-and-wife art collectors and entrepreneurs Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are on a mission to put contemporary art front and center for both visitors and locals. Guests get the bells and whistles of a boutique hotel. But they’re designed as museums first, says Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites, and open to all.
“The museum concept came first and the driving question: How can we make art more accessible,” Stites said. “At its core, the mission is about broadening access to thought-provoking contemporary art and integrating art into people’s everyday lives and experiences.”
When Brown and Wilson opened their first 21c hotel in Louisville, it started out as a “hometown project,” Stites said.
But the cool concept caught on with investors. There are now 21c hotels in nine cities with 90,000 square feet of exhibition space — and two more on the way. The chain has expanded to Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Kansas City and Chicago. And they’re slated to open new locations in Des Moines and St. Louis. For Stites, helping guests get to know the culture of these Southern and Midwestern cities through art is part of the goal.
“There’s a depth and a diversity to culture in these smaller American cities that people don’t anticipate, and it’s our hope that the museum program at 21c reflects that,” she said.
A different take on public art
The 21c museum hotels have become a destination for art lovers but also serve as artistic anchors in the community, hosting a range of cultural events pre-COVID. The museums still offer limited in-person entry to the public and lots of free online programming. The Louisville flagship has scheduled an online event Awakening 2020 on Saturday, Oct. 3, which launches a new exhibition “Ballot Box,” focused on voting rights, and features speakers and musicians including Kentucky state representative Charles Booker, and musician Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
The company’s leadership is serious about identifying and promoting emerging artists and tapping into the power of 21st century art. When 21c opened its latest hotel in Chicago earlier this year, it kicked things off with a hard-hitting show called “This We Believe.” The exhibition looks at belief systems and cultural identity, spotlighting work from artists of color, including New York-based Kara Walker and the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
“This We Believe” opened in February after nearly two years of planning, just weeks before COVID and a national reckoning on race rocked the nation. With its treatment of protest and polarization, it strikes a timely chord. But Stites says it’s the artists rather than the curators who are forward-thinking.
“It’s the artists who are visionary and prescient,” she said. “The privilege of working with contemporary artists is that their work doesn’t just reflect what’s happening in the moment. Oftentimes they’re an early warning system of what is coming. That’s one of the reasons we want to highlight the important role that artists play in society and in the world.”
For Stites, promoting up-and-coming artists like Nate Lewis keeps the hotel’s vision moving forward. Lewis worked in critical-care nursing for nearly a decade and has wowed the art world with pieces pulled from the fascinating visual language of medical diagnostics and human anatomy.
The commitment of the hotel’s founders, Brown and Wilson, to engaging the public and boosting emerging artists is the driving force behind the hotel’s vision.
“They are clearly risk-takers,” Stites said of Brown and Wilson “People think of collecting art as a kind of private passion, but they have taken it on and given it a public mission.”
Consider a stay to a 21c Museum Hotel. Visit 21cmuseumhotels.com.
Big Names and Tiny Art in Minneapolis
Le Méridien Chambers Minneapolis encourages guests to dig into cultural experiences, both inside and outside the hotel. With more than 200 original works — in the lobby, in guest rooms and even in public bathrooms — Le Méridien Chambers oozes art.
The hotel’s in-house gallery boasts top names from the so-called Young British Artists movement, which made shock waves in the 90s art world. This artsy hotel’s collection includes pieces by British artists Gary Hume, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, whose neon work “Be Faithful to Your Dreams” hangs in the lobby.
Le Méridien Chambers offers visitors the perfect souvenir from one of Clark Whittington’s Art-o-Mat pieces: a restored cigarette vending machine that sells tiny original artworks from local and national artists for just $5. The hotel has also built up partnerships with the nearby Walker Art Center (guests get free admission with their artist-designed key cards) and other cultural institutions.
Want to see this gem in person? Check it out here.
Thinking local in Denver
The Kimpton Hotel Born, in Denver’s revitalized downtown, is known for its modern alpine aesthetic and its top-notch collection of Colorado art. The works are curated in conjunction with the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Hotel Born showcases work from more than 30 top Denver artists.
One of the main attractions is the stunning illuminated “Here There” installation from Denver artist Joel Swanson, which lines the hotel entrance. This artsy hotel also gives a nod to its location in Denver’s oldest neighborhood, LoDo (short for Lower Downtown). The walls are adorned with photos of the city’s abandoned Union Station taken in the 90s by Kim Allen, a Denver native known for his shots of a very different pre-urban-renewal downtown Denver.
Want to stop in? Book a room at hotelborndenver.com.
Edgy appeal in NYC
With a midtown location near New York’s top galleries and museums, Manhattan’s Chambers Hotel brought its A-game where contemporary art is concerned. This creative space offers art on every floor, with more than 500 original works in guest rooms and common areas and a site-specific installation on each floor.
Curators have snagged some pretty big names, like edgy cross-disciplinary artist Sheila Pepe, noted artist and filmmaker John Waters, and the hip British slogan artist Patrick Brill who works under the name Bob and Roberta Smith.
Plan your visit at chambershotel.com.
Cultural experiences inside and out in Indy
In Indianapolis, where outdoor public art is booming thanks to the city’s beloved Indianapolis Cultural Trail, the Conrad Indianapolis ramps up the contemporary art game in the heart of a thriving new cultural district.
Indianapolis’ artsy hotel of choice invites visitors to “arrive a guest [and] leave a connoisseur.”
The Conrad’s in-house Long-Sharp Gallery boasts a collection that includes pieces by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and top contemporary artists. Plus, a twice-yearly revolving show in the lobby has featured artists from Joan Miro to Nelson Mandela. Meanwhile, the hotel’s second floor is devoted to work by Indiana artists for some local flare. For guests who want to dig a little deeper, the hotel also offers tours by in-house “art ambassadors” offering up unique cultural experiences. Who knew?
Book a room at conradindianapolis.com.
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.