A Museum Chain is Local, and Also a Hotel

by Paddy Johnson on June 19, 2017 Feature

21c Museum Hotel, Nashville

21c Museum Hotel, Nashville

I spent seven hours inside the Nashville, Tennessee airport last week before they announced my flight had been cancelled. I was in town to see the latest 21c Hotel and Museum, but assumed I would only be staying there one night. At 11 pm, I returned to the hotel for a second evening in the hopes of getting a wistful 5 hours of sleep before returning to the airport the next morning. It wasn’t the best day.

The lodging I returned to, though, made my crappy travel bearable. 21c Museum Hotel  has all the perks of a W Hotel (minus the nightclub vibe) and adds access to a 24 hour contemporary art museum to the mix. The shows change with the regularity of most museums and promise to challenge visitors rather than placate them. There’s art in all the elevators (a Leslie Thornton binocular video fit perfectly in the space), all the lobbies, the conferences rooms, the bar and restaurant, in some of the rooms and will soon always be on the TVs. (21c will be launching their own video art program that will be the default station.) The only place they omit art is the gym.

If there’s a nice place to land for extra night, it’s a museum. That’s the perspective of an art critic, though, so I will admit to being pleasantly surprised that the 21c model has seen so much success. In a little over ten years, Steve Wilson and his wife Laura Lee Brown, he a former political operative, she a Brown-Forman heiress, have opened seven locations in seven cities across the country. Those include Louisville (their first location), Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City, and Nashville. According to their website there are two more hotels in the works—one in Kansas City and the other in Miami.

I wasn’t even sure one would work out. I assumed hotels would find broader audiences through more traditional means—like using spas and water parks as attractions, not art. I also assumed that non-profit museums used the business structure for a reason. Public goods need funding from the public. And yet, 21c exists because its founders wanted to provide better access to their collection than the limited hours foundation museum models typically keep—or those of publicly owned museums. 

“The idea of connection and engagement and broadening access to thought-provoking contemporary art—not art as decoration—is what separates what 21c does from many other hotels and for-profit companies which use art for many different things,” said Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and museum director of 21c, during a press tour. “For 21c, it’s a museum mission.”

21c Museum Hotel Lobby

21c Museum Hotel Lobby

I consider that goal achieved. When I arrived back at the hotel late Thursday night, it was crawling with people. As I checked in, four 20-somethings were asking about the projection in the lobby by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya. The immersive installation mixed live feeds of the museum, a view of North Second Street, and recorded footage from inside Ozkaya’s hotel room. It was of the artist and two friends shooting the shit over some beer. “Is this happening live?” one of the guests asked, joking with his friends that he might like to visit.

The sheer volume of visitors has many local artists excited. “I feel like I won the lottery,” local artist Herb Williams told me. Williams has a studio directly behind the hotel and says that there are far more people exploring the downtown now. He believes the hotel will attract lots of collectors. At the very least, it’s attracted movie stars. Williams told me he saw Reese Witherspoon dining at the 21c restaurant bar Grey and Dudley. “She could not pay any less attention to me if I paid her,” he said, chuckling.  

I remain skeptical that the hotel will attract crowds of collectors—it’s not a five star hotel and the art isn’t for sale—but I do appreciate that guests seem more curious than put-off by the art. That’s no small feat in the south. Even in a liberal city such as Nashville, I could imagine an innocuous projection feed by Ozkaya sparking a full out brawl should a few Trump supporters emerge. Other work in the show could do worse. The exhibition Truth or Dare: A Reality Show consists of over 100 works including an Addie Wagenknecht 3D printed vase she adapted from a print for a handgun at the front desk, Dinh Q Le’s photographic homage to immigrants, and Miguel Angel Rios’s video documenting a route used by the drug trade. According to the press release Truth or Dare is about fact and fiction and presence and absence—a fairly ubiquitous theme in art—but explored with unusual variation and depth here.

Exhibition space at 21c Hotel NashvilleExhibition space at 21c Hotel Nashville

Brian Jobe, who with his wife Carolyn Jobe, co-founded Locate Arts, an organization that promotes and connects artists and exhibitions in Nashville and throughout Tennessee, says he believe 21c has a uniquely contemporary model. “The 24 hour access to art is pretty radical” he told me. “It meets a demand that is synched up with the demand that online life and constant access to image have created for people.”Jobe, who also with his wife runs the Nashville-based, non-profit exhibition venue Seed Space, is particularly plugged into the art scene here and abroad and spoke with authority. “The current show includes a lot of amazing international artists.” he added explaining that the depth of the 21c collection, which mixes local artists with those collected from fairs around the world creates a real draw.

21c’s move to Nashville makes sense to many of the artists who live here. Jobe, for example, says the city’s art scene is growing along with the city. “Nashville has a lot of energy right now. That relates not only to the population influx but how institutions and artists are coalescing to push the scene forward in tandem. Artist ideas and grassroots efforts are being recognized and considered by foundations and institutions and the government. I also feel like it’s important to recognize the decades of groundwork laid by artists to make this possible. There’s something familial to the community—a desire for generations to talk to one another within the art scene.”

That much was on view earlier this week, when I attended the hotel’s first event—a talk and signing for the artist Sharon Louden’s book of essays by artists “The Artist as Culture Producer”. About forty local artists came out to the event, and the Q&A for the talk with Louden and artist and contributor Matthew Deleget lasted about as long as the talk itself. (That’s not unusual for Louden’s events, but also indicative of the communal feel to the group.)

Like most museums, 21c’s auxiliary programming reaches out to local artists and the community. In fact, aside from a slightly unusual exhibition setting, the museum looks and functions like any other institution. For example, they adhere to museum collection management standards. “Luckily, it turns out that human beings and art are pretty comfortable at around 72 degrees,” 21c Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Grey Stites told me when discussing the museum’s conservation guidelines. The hotel’s show space spans a combined 75,000 square feet over all seven of its locations, and has hosted traveling museum shows, so those standards are required. 

The Sanctuary

The Sanctuary

These details are important for making a business run smoothly enough that visitors don’t need to think about anything other than enjoying the art. And aside from the exhibition I saw, which is worth seeing on its own, Nashville’s 21c has a special room available for rent that’s worth whatever price they put on it. (Although prices vary depending on dates, July 4th is currently available for $672 and includes a $25 voucher to their in-house restaurant Gary & Dudley.) Titled “The Sanctuary”, this collaboration between painter Sebastiaan Bremer and musician-composer Josephine Wiggs includes paints and inks from Bremer’s studio, instruments from Wiggs’s home studio and a recording center, a bubble blower for the shower, an etch-a-sketch beside the toilet, an array of crazy second hand shop finds including a bizarre taxidermy fish alligator and a bulletin board affixed with band photos and a business card with the contact information for the the Nashville mayor’s scheduler. The studio even has an Artiphon, a new device developed at New Inc that allows musicians to strum a guitar, bow a violin, tap a piano and loop a beat all in one musical instrument.

Needless to say, it’s the perfect installation for Nashville, a city known for its music. It also achieves what may be the most important goal of both museums and hotels—it makes you want to come back.

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