It’s better to ask Alice Gray Stites what one can’t do with a degree in English (short list) rather than what one can do (almost anything).
The New York City native and Louisville resident has parlayed her love of reading, writing and literature into a full-time job as museum director and chief curator at 21c Museum Hotel, a burgeoning, multivenue museum that integrates contemporary art with hospitality, even in guest rooms.
21c opened its fifth location in March in downtown Lexington.
“Being an art curator requires looking at a lot of art and reading a lot,” said Alice, who worked on a variety of projects for 21c before coming on board full time five years ago.
She directs a team of 15 individuals who assist with curating exhibitions, site-specific installations and cultural programming. Since the first museum hotel opened in Louisville 10 years ago, there have been upward of 100 exhibitions.
Alice has strong advice for career-minded women who want to be successful.
“You need to work hard. You need to work really, really hard,” said the mother of three grown children. “You need to stand up and speak up. When you look out for others, you end up benefiting yourself.”
It also helps to have an expert or two in your corner.
Alice, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Virginia and earned a master’s degree at Columbia University, stays in touch with the high school English teacher who encouraged her to write.
And, she might not have fallen in love with contemporary art if not for another friend who took a special interest in her intellectual and cultural development.
“She was a very successful and knowledgeable art dealer in New York,” Alice explained. “She took me to all of these (exhibition) openings in SoHo. I spent a lot of time going to galleries and museums. I became immersed in it. I found out I really loved it.”
Alice was working as an arts writer and editor in Manhattan when she met her future husband, Louisville native James W. Stites III, at the Kentucky Derby.
She brought her passion for contemporary art to her new home in Louisville, where she served as director of artwithoutwalls, a non-profit public arts organization. From 1995-2006, she was adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum.
Alice, who collaborates with artists and cultural organizations worldwide, also has served on advisory boards at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design and at the Art Museum, as well as at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
With 21c Museum Hotels scheduled to open in Oklahoma City, Nashville, Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis, Alice’s very busy life shows no signs of slowing down.
“When you get the bug, it’s hard to get away from it,” she said.