Lizzie Cheatham McNairy, the creator of the blog Matrons & Mistresses and Alice Gray Stites, 21c’s Museum Director and Chief Curator, talk about the origins of the Museum Hotel model, the evolution of the exhibition The Future is Female, currently on view at 21c Durham, and how the works in the exhibition pose hard questions and offer hope for a progressive future. As Alice Gray Stites explains, “The inauguration of Kamala Harris as Vice President is a significant step towards a future that is feminist.”
Lizzie Cheatham McNairy (LCM): Alice, I am so excited to speak with you today. A lot of our interview will be focused on The Future is Female exhibition which recently opened in Durham, but before we dive in, if I may, I’d love to ask you just a couple broader questions. You, as the curator and museum director of 21c, have what I consider one of the coolest jobs in the art world. Can you tell us a bit about what that entails, as well as the journey that took you there?
Alice Gray Stites (AGS): I began to work on exhibitions of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, and that is how I got to know the founders of 21c, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. It was about 10 years later that they embarked upon founding this new model for arts and culture, as well as for hospitality. They had been collecting for a number of years and had a lot of visitors coming to their house and they thought contemporary art has such a profound effect on the way we see the world, more people should have access to this kind of artwork. At the same time, they also are passionate about preservation and were really ahead of their time because they were talking about preserving the urban core—and about preserving farmland by investing in the urban core in 2005, which was pretty amazing. Downtown Louisville had been kind of abandoned or neglected, as the downtown of many mid-sized American cities were in the 1970s and ’80s when people moved to the suburbs. Steve and Laura Lee were really passionate about this and pursued this dream, but they did not want to open a foundation or a museum that charges admission or membership or depends upon tax dollars to run it. So they did some research about what business would do well in Louisville, and the answer was, Your city needs more hotel rooms. That’s how 21c becoming a hotel was born. They’re also really passionate about farming and food, so of course, the museum hotel includes a chef-driven restaurant, Proof on Main.
I was then an independent curator, working with some other collectors in Louisville, as well as doing my last major exhibition for the Speed Museum, which was a retrospective for painter Mary Ann Currier. Steve and Laura Lee asked if I would curate the inaugural exhibitions for 21c Louisville, which opened in the spring of 2006. There was a lot of skepticism, especially among my colleagues in the art world about whether this was really going to work. This was in 2006. In the years that followed, the economy hit a terribly low point— but 21c as a business really kept growing. In that period, investors and developers from various different cities started coming forward. Originally, Laura Lee and Steve had no plans for 21c to be anywhere but Louisville, but there seemed to be serious interest, so six years later, in November 2012, when I was on board full time as chief curator/ museum director, we opened #2 in Cincinnati, Ohio. In February 2020, we opened #9 in Chicago, Illinois.
AGS: There is work in the collection of all media. The artists range from the very, very famous: Kehinde Wiley, Bill Viola, Kara Walker, to emerging artists from all over the world. In fact, about 50% of the work in the collection is non-US artists. Also about 47% non-male identified. That’s pretty unusual. It ranges from the emerging to the established because Steve and Laura Lee are not interested in the prominence of an artist— they’re looking for work that really inspires them, that makes them think, that is really thought-provoking, that is well made, that is innovative, that is using new materials or addressing new ideas in the world. It doesn’t matter to them if the work has been bought by another museum, or these five other famous collectors have bought it. They are really looking at the work and looking at it everywhere. It’s one of the great advantages of being in all these different cities, we’re discovering so many wonderful artists in places like Durham, NC; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Bentonville, Arkansas; Cincinnati, Ohio through our program called “Elevate.” Also, on each of the guest room floors—that’s something that we do in all 21cs. Hence the term “elevate”— the idea is that people who are seeing that work are probably staying in that hotel and therefore coming in from out of town. They get a sense of local culture, a sense of place through the art that’s being made there, but also those artists are getting greater exposure to audiences beyond their own communities. In Durham, we’re now presenting shows by local artists in that Vault Gallery where Stacey Kirby’s installation has been on view. Through “Elevate,” we discover a lot of wonderful artists from whom we may borrow work from for touring exhibitions. Sometimes there have been acquisitions to the collection. In one case, an artist duo from Cincinnati who go by the name Future Retrieval were commissioned to create a permanent installation in the Counting House in Durham, White Light. Our founders’ trust-your-gut instinct has certainly served them well, and it inspires not only me and my department, but I think everyone at 21c. It really is this new model and this sort of hybrid place of both culture and commerce. It’s really a new territory, and I think it’s very exciting to be part of that–putting into the world something that people didn’t know that they wanted. There was no proven track record that a contemporary art museum married to a hospitality model would be so successful or would really come to define what we now talk about as the “experience economy.”
LCM: Yes. Absolutely.
AGS: All the exhibitions and programming at 21c are free and open to the public. At this moment when, as you well know, a lot of institutions are facing challenges in terms of funding, in terms of developing more diverse audiences, in terms of developing younger audiences and developing future support, 21c provides one example of one kind of new model making make art accessible, but also thought-provoking, and as the platform for starting and maybe changing conversations about our communities and our world.
LCM: When you were curating the first iteration of The Future is Female in Louisville in 2016, the world looked quite different. Can you talk a bit about the history of the exhibit and how it has evolved over the last few years as it has toured to different locations? How does the exhibit reflect the changing landscape?
AGS: In 2016, 21c Louisville was celebrating their tenth anniversary, in honor of which I curated a show called A Global Gathering. It was really a reflection of the evolution of the collection to become as I was describing before—really global in its perspective, a wide breadth of materials and media through works that are addressing the human condition. I began to expand upon looking at new acquisitions to the collection and realized that a lot of it was sculpture by women. I thought, ‘This is great. This will be an interesting take on our tenth anniversary.’ I casually was referring to the show among my team as The Future is Female exhibition, and I will credit the members of my team, smart women who said, ‘Yes, we should definitely call it that.’! This was during the election. I like to listen to people who hold my feet to the fire, so we said, ‘Okay, no matter what happens, The Future is Female.’
I had actually long wanted to do an exhibition about honoring the legacy of the Second-wave Women’s Movement and the artists of that generation who had such a profound effect on all of the art made by people that identify with all genders and sexualities since the 1970s. The use of craft, the idea of personal experience being an apt subject, all of the identity art that came out of the ’80s— I think really is indebted to those women working in the 1970s, like Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler, Howardena Pindell, Adrian Piper. These two things came together to create the exhibition. When it opened in November of 2016, there were, I think, 20 artists in the first iteration of the show, but today there are 50.
At the opening, the sense of urgency and desire to connect and share was palpable in the room. It was a standing-room-only crowd. Instead of speaking about the work, we handed the mic over to the public to express how they felt about the work and how they felt about what was going on in the world. So, it seemed the show should travel. Next, it went to Cincinnati, where there were probably almost twice as many works; the show had filled all of the exhibition spaces. That was when Zoë Buckman came and gave her talk, and that was quite a galvanizing moment because we were then so past the sort of mourning period, the immediate aftermath of the election. A year later, there was really this passion, and I think that her work, especially Champ, embodies that moment of Now it’s clear that women’s reproductive rights and other civil rights are under attack. ‘It’s time to start to take up space and fighting back,’ as Zoë likes to say. Today, the exhibition has expanded again, but also kind of shifted the focus.
The original title, The Future is Female comes from the 1970s. It first appeared on a T-shirt that we sold at a women’s-only bookstore in New York City. I think it was about 2014 or so that it began to reappear again on T-shirts, but also on all kinds of platforms, both printed and digital. I think it really now means something else, something more. Actually, at the first opening in 2016, a family, mother, father and 2 children all showed up wearing the T-shirts, which was a moving moment. But today, the use of this title serves dual purposes: one is to reference the evolution of art and the persistence of both the kind of art that was first made by the artists associated with the second-wave women and to reference the persistence of the struggle for gender equality, but also to question what the phrase asserts. There is a question mark implied within the title now. The Future is Female? means that the future is inclusive. “Female is,” as Judy Butler said, “a troubled term.” It’s true that women’s bodies and psyche are still contested spaces. Our rights are still contested. But the patriarchy does not only constrict those who identify as female; there is a fluidity to this term, and the exhibition now includes a number of artists who don’t identify as heterosexual females.
I would argue—I’m just thinking this through for the first time— that under patriarchy, particularly under late capitalist patriarchy, there is this celebration of the individual. What we see in the artwork in The Future is Female is the recognition that personal experience can give us a window into many important ideas and subjects, but it’s always the personal connected to the communal. The effect of taking away one person’s rights extends to a malignancy on society as a whole, as well on the environment. Marisa Marán Jahn’s and Rafi Segal’s installation, Gifts of Earth and Extimacy, along with the works by Alison Saar, Vibha Galhotra, and others really make this direct line between the way that we treat women and—or non-straight, white males, those on the outskirts, those outside the patriarchal norms, and the way that we have treated our environment—there’s a reason why we call it Mother Earth.
LCM: If you had one hope for the people who will come and experience the art in The Future is Female what would that be?
AGS: You know, Lizzie, at 21c, we always say that everyone’s opinion is valid, which is really true. I resist saying ‘this is what I want people to take away,’ because again, it’s very important that you take away your own response and your own thoughts. Always the best contemporary art leaves us, not in a certain place, not with a sense of complacency, but sometimes it’s a state of questioning. When we don’t completely understand or completely make sense of things, that’s when we begin looking at the world a little differently, and at each other. I hope that there are artworks in the exhibition that do move people or that raise questions. Maybe it’s Andrea Bower’s painting on cardboard that recreates an illustration from the 1913 Women’s March on Washington next to the composite photograph of the 2017 Women’s March. I hope that juxtaposition maybe raises the question of, ‘Why are we still marching for equal rights?’
LCM: Right. Why is this still happening…?
AGS: It’s hard not to respond to Zoë Buckman’s work. You rarely see an artwork that shows women’s reproductive organs. It’s taking something internal and marrying it to these boxing gloves, which we think of as male, as being something used to hurt perhaps, but what’s really powerful about that too, is the neon uterus. This work, alongside much of the art in the exhibition, raises questions about why there are the conditions that we have right now, and why is there so much resistance. Hopefully, the exhibition sparks feelings of solidarity and also for possibilities of a more progressive future. That’s what I hope would be one takeaway: that there is the potential for change, there’s potential for inclusiveness, for empathy. There is the potential that Judy Chicago will be right when she says, “I believe that for this moment of history, feminism is humanism.” The inauguration of Kamala Harris as Vice President is a significant step towards a future that is feminist.
To read the full dialogue between Lizzie and Alice, please visit: https://www.matronsandmistresses.com/articles/2021/1/20/alice-gray-stites