NASHVILLE — The 21c Museum Hotel chain represents a new model for art in the public sphere. The flagship location opened in Louisville, Kentucky, just 11 years ago and has since expanded to six operating locations in Southern-Midwestern population centers like Cincinnati, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina; and Lexington, Kentucky, with the newest addition slated to open in Nashville, Tennessee, by mid-May. With the developing location comes a fresh opportunity for 21c to introduce a new community to its unique approach to contemporary art.
“We’re a hybrid, but still, what is it?” said Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites, who took a break from installing the inaugural exhibition in Nashville, Truth or Dare: A Reality Show, to speak with Hyperallergic. “It’s very hard to understand until you come here. So we want to use the inaugural exhibitions to express something that’s really seminal to the character of the whole organization and what it wants to do.”
Stites has worked with 21c since its inception, first as an independent curator and eventually as the leader of a dedicated museum team when the flagship branched into multiple locations, developing the collection of some 2,500 art objects with co-founders and contemporary art enthusiasts Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson.
“One of the goals has always been to expand the audience for contemporary art and to erase what have been the traditional boundaries, whether those are physical boundaries or the imaginary boundaries of the velvet rope or the grand processional,” said Stites, “not to mention the ticket or membership price that also keeps people out. So we can collapse those boundaries by making space that’s publically accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, by educating our entire staff to share their knowledge and passion about art with the public, by continually presenting exhibitions.”
After a stay at the 21c’s Cincinnati location during the 2016 FotoFocus Biennial, I was familiar with some of the practices of the museum hotel, including their iconic penguin mascots, whose location-specific color scheme is matched to the custom cotton candy that’s served with the check at their onsite restaurants. At risk of damaging my credibility as a person who values principles over material comforts, I admit that I do like a fancy hotel getaway now and then, and, like everyone else, I do what I can to live my best life on Instagram.
What unexpectedly emerged, however, was a legitimate existential crisis about the nature of the relationship between museum and hotel. Because, as of my visit, the 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville was not completely finished. There were many things a hotel requires already in place: walls, a restaurant, furnishings, an elevator, and a small village of contractors, service professionals, maintenance staff, and art handlers working as hard as possible to hit the line on opening day. But there were also many things not quite in place yet, like a functioning lobby, television service, in-room amenities, and more than one working elevator. Dozens of pieces in the inaugural exhibition had been installed upon my arrival, some two weeks before the official opening; many still were not. This presents something of a conundrum in terms of my ability to accurately reflect the aesthetics or intentions of the finished exhibition: I find myself unable to offer more than evaluation or appreciation for those individual works that I was able to see. However, as a person with a healthy curiosity about the workings of the world — not to mention one to whom it is typically a high priority to present a finished product — it was fascinating to see the work that goes into an environment that is usually presented as a seamless experience, and to get to know some of the people behind the process.
The museum side of 21c is supported by the hotel and restaurant revenue, and as such, Stites has created a scrappy and efficient team. Based in Louisville, the overarching museum management includes Director of Museum Operations Eli Meiners and Registrar Deanna Taylor, as well as site-based museum managers for each of the locations — in Nashville, this is Brian Downey, who left his position as Director of Exhibitions & Associate Curator at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art to throw in with 21c. The art team is a convivial, fraternal bunch, with all hands on deck to help prepare for the new location rollout.
“Nashville has great museums, great contemporary art galleries,” said Downey, taking a brief aside from installation to speak with Hyperallergic. “But I think it’s very exciting that Nashville now has a museum that’s devoted strictly to contemporary art.” As operations get underway here, it will be among Downey’s responsibilities to schedule site-specific programming that is responsive to the needs and interests of the location, such as the popular film screening series at 21c Lexington, the brainchild of Museum Manager Alex Brooks.
“All the 21cs have community partners and do programming, whether it’s poetry or film screenings, hosting events that would be a good tie-in with what we do here,” said Downey. “We’re always looking for more opportunities like that, and to bring that programming to Nashville.”
“I find 21c’s greatest gift is that of accessibility,” said Meiners, in a follow-up email interview. Meiners has worked for 21c for five years, having come to the position from the Cincinnati Art Museum. “As citizens of a smaller city like Cincinnati, we would never have a chance to gain access to works like those in the shows we put together. Our model gives us the flexibility to bring the zeitgeist to smaller cities. And we don’t keep bankers’ hours, so you can literally come and see the exhibitions when it is convenient for you.”
Indeed, the greatest question that arose was, when it comes to the 21c Museum Hotel, where does the art end and the hotel begin? As 21c has defined itself as a museum hotel, does that make the hotel experience nearly as important as the art itself? These are the kind of existential musings that arise in the mind of an arts writer when she does not have cable television in her hotel room — let alone the 21c art channel, which greets visitors as the default channel setting, and which I confess I was very much looking forward to watching. The experience of getting to watch video art in bed is an unparalleled luxury.
Certainly the art does not stop in the corridor or the lobby, which is outfitted with commissioned artworks and selections from the 21c collection. Nor in the elevator, which, I’m told, will eventually run video art segments, nor in the upper-floor corridors, which will showcase the work of Nashville artists, nor even in the rooms themselves, which feature photographs from annual trips made by Laura Lee Brown (who paints and takes photographs, in addition to being one of the co-founding partners). So it became complicated for me to try to decide how much of a museum hotel should be part of an art review. But in a way, this is the essence of the 21c mission: to dissolve the distinction between art places and life places.
“It’s a humanist perspective on contemporary art,” said Stites of 21c’s collection. “It’s about the human experience, both lived and dreamed in the twenty-first century — so, very much contemporary, but very much about what people are experiencing. The founders were driven to collect art and to create 21c largely because they’re very curious people, and I think curiosity is an important quality for everyone to have, but particularly today, with our dearth of empathy for others. When you’re curious about others, you’re much more likely to think about walking in their shoes.”
21c Nashville is taking its first steps into the scene, and like all first steps, things are a little wobbly. But if the other 21c locations are a telling precedent, it will soon hit its stride.
Editor’s note: The 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville paid for the author’s accommodations and travel expenses.