Deep into a tour of 21c Museum Hotel’s gallery, chief curator Alice Gray Stites is asked if everything she is showing is open to the public.
“Yes, this is all public space,” Stites says. “You can walk up, you can take the elevator up, and the exhibition continues.”
The word museum in the name of this hotel chain is not taken lightly. At Thursday afternoon’s Art Connects luncheon at ArtsPlace, Stites commented that 21c has to keep opening hotels because owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson keep acquiring new art.
The company bills itself as North America’s only multi-venue museum dedicated to contemporary art, and Stites said that with this week’s opening of the Lexington location, it now has more than 55,000 square feet of exhibit space between Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati, Bentonville, Ark., and Durham, N.C.
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“The museum component is a multi-venue museum, so we think of it as one, with different venues,” Stites says. “Most of the museum team is based in Louisville, and then we have a museum manager in each of our locations, and we come and work with the museum manager when we are changing out exhibitions.”
Lexington’s museum manager is Alex Brooks, known as a local writer, artist and printmaker whose work was purchased by 21c, years before he went to work for the company.
Like all locations, Lexington’s 21c has permanent art features and rotating exhibits, largely drawn from Wilson and Brown’s private collection, augmented with items on loan and commissioned works. For the most part, the gallery space is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The work most people who frequent downtown have already seen is Totally in Love, a 2012 sculpture of steel, hand-blown glass and electronics by Dutch artist Pieke Bergmans. The piece takes what looks like two street lamps and twists them into a passionate embrace.
Bergmans originally conceived the piece for a 2013 exhibition in Venice featuring anthropomorphic forms, Stites said. Its display at the corner of Main and Upper streets brings a public art element to the museum’s exterior, albeit not quite as flashy as the 30-foot, golden replica of Michelangelo’s David, sculpted by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, that stands in front of 21c Louisville.
The large windows in the bar also will let passersby see another one of its permanent exhibits, Tomorrow’s Weather by the Swedish duo Bigert & Bergstrom. The acrylic spheres hanging over the lounge of the Lockbox restaurant and representing atmospheric molecules will change colors based on the next day’s National Weather Service forecast. There is one lone orb hanging over the reception desk that will rise and fall and change color with the temperature, blues meaning colder and reds meaning hotter — wait for those 100-degree days.
“It seems so perfect for this building because of our proximity to the street and the outside world,” Stites says. “We like hanging something here that will have a relationship to the outside world and bring people in.”
Adding to the work’s intrigue, Stites says it is programmed to do something on New Year’s Eve, and she has no idea what that is.
Other permanent exhibits include the crystal-like Spectralline by the American company SOFTlab, which uses acrylic glass, aluminum and LED lights to create the image of crystals growing out of the wall in the 21c entrance, and the glass changes colors, thanks to a dichroic film as viewers move under it.
Other permanent pieces include Dutch artist Tord Boontje’s Ice Branch Chandelier, made from Swarovski crystals, which hangs over a lounge area adjacent to the check-in desk — themselves an artwork of sorts, made from steamer trunks — and under that sits American artist Ned Kahn’s Aeolian Landscape, which will utilize sand and air to create an ever-changing desert landscape. The floor of the private dining room in the safe of the former bank building is also a work of art: ceramic tiles by Leslie Lyons and JB Wilson called BRASS and featuring images of bullet casings.
What promises to keep people coming back are rotating exhibits, and Stites notes that every new location opens with a newly curated exhibit that has a local tie. Lexington opens with Dress Up/Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation, a show presenting clothing and costume to represent cultures, realities and aspirations in a variety of media from 22 artists representing more than a dozen nations.
Featured in the exhibit is Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson, an associate professor of painting at the University of Kentucky.
“I am very happy to be presenting her work,” Stites says of Patterson, whose art has been exhibited at venues in New York, Washington D.C., Miami, the Caribbean and more. “Much of Ebony’s work draws its visual language, the figures, the way that they’re adorned, the way that they’re posed, from Jamaican dance hall culture and gang culture. There are certainly references that are familiar to American hip hop.”
A number of Patterson’s works are tapestries, backed by wallpaper and bedazzled, often illustrating the invisible nature of lower classes. There are also video works, paintings and mixed media works complemented by works by many other artists throughout the establishment’s gallery space using dress to comment on culture. As a contemporary gallery, working with mostly living artists, Stites says the work by nature addresses current issues and society.
Dress Up/Speak Up will run into September, and then it will likely travel to other 21c locations as other exhibits roll into Lexington.
“When they travel, they always change because the buildings are always different and we look for opportunities to include new work that’s an acquisition or on loan, or we may want to shift the theme a bit because of what’s happening in the world,” Stites says, noting an exhibit of Cuban art was updated as normalization of relations with Cuba were announced while it transferred from one location to another. “One of the advantages of working with contemporary art is you are reacting to what’s happening around you.”
And as 21c opens more locations, Stites says it is exciting to share that experience with more communities.
“It seems to bring vitality,” Stites says. “Often it brings art that might not have been seen before ... so people tend to be excited and curious. Curiosity has become a hallmark of our audiences.”