Recently, 21c’s Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites spoke with Eileen Yanoviak of Burnaway about how the hotel museum model works, what it’s like to show museum-quality works in, essentially, a 24-hour public space, and how art-savvy and unwitting hotel guests respond.
Eileen Yanoviak: Even though people are now familiar with 21c and it continues to grow—what is your elevator pitch for such a unique model? How do you explain the relationship between the art and the business?
Alice Gray Stites: 21c Museum Hotel was founded by people who are passionate about providing access to thought-provoking contemporary art and to creating a sustainable model for doing so. The art is at the heart of 21c and why it exists at all. We consider it a multi-venue museum, now with over 75,000 square feet of exhibition space spread across seven cities, but a single entity. The operations of the museum are supported by the hotel and restaurants.When Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown founded 21c in 2006, their desire was to provide greater access to contemporary art, but also to support the role of culture in the revitalization of downtown cities, investing in the urban core. They didn’t want to open a private foundation or private museum that would be dependent on admission tickets, memberships, donation, and the continued largesse of future generations. They did a study about what kind of business would possibly thrive in downtown Louisville in the early 2000s, and the answer was the city needs more hotel rooms. They’re passionate about food and the sustainability of agriculture in Kentucky, so they also wanted to open a chef-driven restaurant. That model has seemed to work well in each of the cities where 21c is located. But I like to say that the art is integral to the mission of the company and integrated deeply into everything we do.