KANSAS CITY, Missouri — The 21c Museum Hotel chain — which combines luxury hospitality facilities with contemporary art mini-museums — continues its culture march across the American heartland. In mid-July, its newest location opened in downtown Kansas City during the course of a weeklong press tour and community celebration. Open to the public 24 hours a day, the Kansas City location came loaded with its own unique set of possibilities and challenges.
“This is our eighth property,” said co-founder and 21c magnate Steve Wilson, in an interview with Hyperallergic during the opening week festivities, “but it’s the first time we’ve every reinterpreted a restaurant — so that was a challenge. And when I first saw this room, I didn’t know we would have to save it, for historic reasons.”
Wilson refers to what was once the Savoy Grill — a Kansas City fine dining restaurant, part of the Savoy Hotel, built in 1903. Over a century of operations, the restaurant’s dining room retained its original elements, including opulent woodwork, art deco stained glass windows, and, most contentiously, the Savoy Murals, painted by artist Edward Holslag in 1903. Wrapping around the entire upper register of the former dining room, the murals depict a cowboy-heroic mythology of pioneers on their journey along the Santa Fe Trail. The Savoy Grill was shut down after a kitchen fire in 2014, and as the 21c earmarked it for a new location, they had to contend with both the protections of the National Register of Historic Places, and the sentimental attachment of longtime locals to this legacy establishment.
“I’m thrilled with it now,” said Wilson, who involves himself with the details of his properties from ground-breaking to ribbon-cutting — scouting locations, designing room layouts, and frequenting art fairs for new acquisitions. He often pep-talks the teams that manage each individual site and stays in constant communication with 21c’s close-knit core staff, who operate out of the flagship location in Louisville, which opened in 2006.
21c’s art team, led by Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites, addressed the one-sided version of history presented in the antique Holslag murals by installing a 2017 work by Brad Kahlhamer, called “Super Catcher, Vast Array,” in the room where the murals hang, which was converted to a bar and lounge. Kahlhamer, who was raised in Tucson, Arizona, reconfigures traditional cultural aspects of his Native American heritage, such as dreamcatchers, totem poles, and teepees, in a mixed-media practice that explores a “third place” of hybridized identity. As one of several sited works that will remain on display at 21c’s Kansas City location, “Super Catcher, Vast Array” was an extant commission that happened to fit perfectly between two columns in the hotel’s lounge. It spans the space with a filigreed wire sculpture, which seems to fade in and out of visibility as the quality of sunlight shifts over the course of a day. This process of Native American figuration over Western infrastructure is reminiscent of ledger art, a unique Plains Indian genre of narrative drawing, in which 19th and early 20th century artists drew battle memories on scrap paper from old railroad ledgers and checkbooks.
“Typically I do museum and gallery [work] — you know, white boxes,” Kalhamer told Hyperallergic during opening week. “The chance to really work with the bones of the city was super exciting, and it’s natural for me. Most of my practice is sitting East in my [Brooklyn] studio, and then working around the Western mythologies. This is definitely next-level, to layer up this other cosmology against those old, compulsory Manifest Destiny illustrations.”
Kahlhamer’s installation is just one of several permanent sited works at the 21c. There’s also “Linear Sky” (2018), by the collaborative duo Luftwerk, a series of light fixtures that convert the hotel’s tunnel-like entryway into an optical illusion, flooding it with colorful patterns that reflect the real-time chromatic spectrum in the sky above. In the domed lobby hangs a chandelier made of uranium glass, which glows a sinister, irradiated green under its blacklight bulbs. Called “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (U.S.A.)” (2015), the work is part of artist duo Ken + Julia Yonetani’s series of 31 uranium glass chandelier sculptures; each chandelier’s size corresponds to the scale of a specific country’s nuclear power capacity. The 21c has acquired the largest piece in the series — “U.S.A.,” of course.
In addition to these and other permanent installations — as well as the “Elevate” series, curated by KC Museum Manager Jori Cheville, which features the work of Kansas City artists in the hotel’s elevators and corridors — there is the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Refuge. Spanning the video room and public galleries on the first two floors, it presents works that are, by turns, exquisite and challenging on the topic of immigration, emigration, and the refugee state.
“Usually a show does start off from a handful of works in the collection,” Gray Stites told Hyperallergic. “In this case, it wasn’t a work of art. This came from a desire to explore this topic, and a feeling of responsibility. Steve and I started talking about it at least two years ago — we need to do something about the topic of immigration and refuge. Then, looking at the collection, there was a great deal of work addressing this, either directly or indirectly.”
The eventual acquisition of a series by South African artist Mohau Modiskeng, “Passage” (2017) — which consists of a three-channel video, constantly screening in the on-site viewing room, as well as six large-scale still images from the same source material — gave shape to some of the exhibition’s major visual themes. Throughout Refuge, we see oceans and water, boats, black bodies, borders, encampments and makeshift shelters, with emotional themes of cultural slippage, feelings of dislocation, the politics and fragility of identity, and the need for protection and vulnerability.
Passersby might first notice a series of miniature ships, called “The Wine Dark Sea” (2016), by Scottish artist Hew Locke, which are suspended in a little shanty-armada across the main gallery’s front window. Once inside, a visitor might peer through the barbed wire-topped black steel gates of “Homeland Security” (2002), a sculpture by Peruvian artist Jota Castro, and see one of Irish photographer Richard Mosse’s large-scale prints from “Heat Maps” (2015–17), which document refugee camps in Europe as seen through a military-issue thermographic camera with a telephoto lens. This is just one of many stark juxtapositions and encounters within Refuge that leave the viewer somehow implicated in the surrounding conditions. This is, of course, not accidental.
“It’s interesting, putting together an exhibition that is intended to highlight the vulnerability of the human condition in a dignified and powerful way,” said Stites. “To understand that our real manifest destiny has to do with our shared humanity. The show is intended to be not just dark — it is about seeking a better life, and that as a human right.”
With a score of stunning work in the exhibition, permanent installations, and on display in the new Savoy restaurant, the 21c seems determined to introduce itself to Kansas City not only as a place of temporary shelter, but a place of refuge.