A Look at 21C: Boutique Museum Hotel

By Kevin Ott



It would be hard to argue that downtown Cincinnati was not in need of a hip boutique hotel. 21C does much more than just fill this void: it adds a refreshing approach to exhibiting contemporary art in a welcoming setting in the heart of our “arts district”. A third top notch venue for art, the 21C, is now working the block, bookended by the CAC and the Weston Art Gallery on Walnut between 6th and 7th Streets.

The entrance to 21C immediately lets you know this is not your standard hotel chain. A large chandelier hangs above the side walk at the entrance. Inside, a glass enclosed quirky diorama of camels– stuffed, ceramic, toy and any other form you can imagine—greets you. The reception area is sparse and gallery-like with cement floors and white walls, not sumptuous or posh. Around the corner and up some winding stairs leads one to a series of connected galleries, the art all nicely placed with room to breathe. Some of the rooms can serve as conference rooms or informal meeting areas. It is immediately apparent that art is not here for decoration and that engagement makes for a distinctly different hotel experience, even for the non-guest.

Laura Lee Brown and her husband Steve Wilson of Louisville are the owners and art collectors who have perfected the model for art hotels. The three hotels’ galleries(Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville, Arkansas) are all curated by Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Director of Art Programming. According to Ms. Gray Stites, shows will rotate among hotels, but change, work added or subtracted. “More copy-morph instead of copy-paste,” she says.

But, what is the philosophy and strategy to collecting? “Works shown are generally part of the collection, but we will also partner with institutions or borrow work from galleries or collectors to supplement, especially in a survey show, such as the Michael Combs show (now in Louisville)” Alice says. The work in the collection is acquired through the usual channels—visits to galleries, local, national and international, art fairs, or sometimes, directly from the artists.

Alice Gray Stites, 21CHotel curator

As to 21C’s curatorial approach, Alice states that “21C seeks to collect and show art in all media from nationally, internationally, well-known or more regional artists. The art is contemporary and often of the 21st century”. The current show in Cincinnati, “DIS-SEMBLANCE: Perceiving and Projecting Identity” is a prime example of this. Much of the show consists of portraiture in a broad variety of media: chromogenic prints, gelatin silver prints, Ben Durham’s beautiful hand-made paper and pencil large scale ”Natasha”; Chuck Close’s “Kara”, a pigment print from daguerreotype; Cindy Sherman’s “Lucille Ball”; Vic Muniz’ “Marlene Dietrich”; Mark Stockton’s perfect postage stamp size graphite drawings of rap stars and Andres Felipe Castanto’s untitled pastel pencil portraits drawn in printing process ben-day dots. So, a broad variety of media and techniques; artists well-known and not so well-known, of-the-moment and historically significant, all wrapped under the theme of “how we conceive and communicate identity in this global, digital age.”

As for collaboration, more cloud than rain so far among Cincinnati’s arts institutions, 21C, Alice says, “would look forward to and welcome collaboration. There is nothing specific at this time, but we are in touch with both Raphaela (Platow of the CAC) and Aaron (Betsky of the Art Museum) and always open.” The
Art Museum did show a selection of 21C work in a show prior to the opening of the hotel here.

In addition to its three operating hotels, two other 21C hotels are under way in Durham, NC and Lexington, KY. From my visits to Cincinnati and Louisville, it appears that this is a brand that is sustainable and will succeed over the long haul. With the changing art, there is always a reason to go back, whether to stay the night, eat or just check out the art.

Finally, as to how the 21C is fairing in Cincinnati, Alice Gray Stites says “Fantastically. We are thrilled”. It is an important cog in downtown Cincinnati’s rebirth, and what it brings to the city’s cultural menu is equally important.

Outside the 21C Museum Hotel


— Kevin Ott

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