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Hospitality Meets Curiosity at 21c Museum Hotels

The 21c Museum Hotel concept—part boutique hotel, part chef-driven restaurant, all anchored by a 75,000-square-foot multi-venue contemporary art museum—is an entirely new animal. A far cry from “art hotels” of the past, the hotels today offer North America’s only collecting museums dedicated to the art of the 21st century. “We like collecting contemporary art because it’s a way of recording what’s happening today,” said Brown.

Step into any 21c Museum Hotel and you’ll encounter images that speak to the struggles, concerns, standards, and joys of contemporary culture. Curated exhibitions reflect on race, gender roles, religion, technology, perception, reality, and more. The art at 21c, the art of today, provides a lens through which guests can consider their biases, start conversations, and be inspired to act.

With a social mission as much as an entrepreneurial one, 21c’s core aim is to enrich communities by making contemporary art accessible to the community. The first 21c, on the curious corner of 7th and Main in Louisville, Kentucky, began with a dream of revitalizing downtown and laid the foundation for a brand that is disrupting the hospitality industry.

Today’s 21c receives regular calls from developers and community members wanting a 21c revitalization in their hometown, but in the early days not everyone was so sure of the concept. “People thought we were crazy to open anything on the corner of 7th and Main Street, let alone a contemporary art museum, hotel, and restaurant,” said Brown’s husband and 21c co-founder Steve Wilson. “We wanted to bring art into everyday life and outside of the traditional imposing marble temple. We live with art in every room of our house so we wanted the public to be stimulated in the same way.“

Since 2007, 21c Museum Hotels have begun occupying curious corners throughout the U.S., bringing contemporary art to Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Ohio, and soon Missouri—with access to the public always free of charge, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. More than just hanging art on a wall, 21c commissions new site-specific works that are installed throughout each property, curates rotating exhibitions, and organizes cultural programming at each property that is as unique to the community as the historic buildings that 21c Museum Hotels occupy.

With the exception of a property in Bentonville, Arkansas, 21c Museum Hotels are historic rehabilitations. Wilson said of this choice, “These buildings have been a part of the cities and communities for a long time, in many cases 100 years or more. We open them up to the public, reveal the beauty of the original features of the building, which have usually been covered up, and complement that with thoughtful design and thought-provoking art.”

Each 21c Museum Hotel is home to a flock of brightly colored penguins—limited-edition sculptures by artist collective Cracking Art Group. Founders Brown and Wilson first saw the penguins—in red—at the Venice Biennale and brought them home for the opening exhibition for 21c Louisville. Intended to be only temporary, they became a staple of all 21c Museum Hotels as 21c guests and visitors fell in love with the creatures and the inherent playfulness they added to the hotel and dining experience. 21c team members too fell in love, regularly planting penguins in guest rooms, at dining tables, and in elevators, surprising and delighting guests at every turn.

In the early days of planning a hotel venture, the couple sought the expertise of hotel management companies, but it quickly became apparent to Brown and Wilson that 21c was approaching things in a new way entirely. “We found that in the hospitality industry, genuine hospitality is hard to come by. It was important to us that guests at the hotel feel as though they were welcomed like guests in our home for dinner,” said Wilson. “There was a time when we thought we might be crazy too. Then in 2008, Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers voted 21c the #16 hotel in the U.S. We made two goals: get to #1 and open more hotels. By the next year, 21c Louisville was named the #1 hotel in the U.S. Turns out, people crave contemporary art and get what we’re doing.”

The company has come far since those early days, and is secure in its individuality and sense of self. “We’ve always been outliers and rule-breakers, if for no other reason than we didn’t know what the rules were,” said Brown.

Part of synthesizing the in-home experience Brown and Wilson sought was to create a restaurant at each 21c that was embraced by the locals as much as the hotel’s guests. It started with Proof on Main in Louisville, which today is known as a warm, glowing corner packed with diners and revelers late into the night. Each 21c restaurant translates the museum experience to the plate. Today, eight restaurants operate from each chef’s unique point of view, bringing together the region’s foodways and seasonal ingredients.

You won’t find reverence to tradition, but in the restaurants, and in every corner of 21c Museum Hotels, you’ll encounter true hospitality. The company trains employees to say “yes” to guests and to one another. You’ll also find that everyone, from front desk agents to housekeepers to managers, can speak about the art on the walls. “We believe in radical inclusiveness, radical transparency, and radical access to art,” said Alice Gray Stites, chief curator of 21c Museums. “This approach is in every touch point at 21c Museum Hotels, beginning with our front desk team. From day one, they’re welcomed not just as employees, but as members of the 21c Museum team.”

While most of us have become accustomed to mindless travel, 21c Museum Hotels’ philosophy envisions the future of the company—and of the travel experience—as nurturing more-mindful experiences. “As we grow, we want 21c to be seen as, not an escape from reality, but an opportunity to reconsider it. Through thought-provoking exhibitions and genuine hospitality, we’ve always believed that we can make travel more enriching while helping to build more engaged, revitalized communities,” said Wilson. “21c isn’t static. It’s ever changing and evolving. The emerging and established artists we showcase are creating the vision of the future while reflecting on the issues of today from many global points of view.”

She added, “We embrace all the people who don’t know where they’re going next, or what they’re going to do next, by an open attitude and appreciation for creativity and individuality. It’s who we are. We’re all about change, expression, beauty, and the times.”

Let your curiosity lead you to www.21cmuseumhotels.com to find out more—and to experience unmatched creativity and hospitality.