Copious Notes: City leaders hope 21c Museum Hotel creates arts ripples

"Healing Tiles" by Brian Knep is a site-specific ­installation at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati.
"Healing Tiles" by Brian Knep is a site-specific ­installation at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati.

Inherent in the name 21c Museum Hotel is a word that has not been a strong presence in the landscape of downtown Lexington: museum.

"It brings a marquee status to our city through an internationally recognized contemporary art museum," Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a serious art collector, says of 21c. "This is an entirely new business model where the city gets not just beds and a restaurant but a real art museum with a real collection that is curated."

It also will land at one of the busiest intersections in town, Main and Upper streets, where it will be in the foot-traffic flow of major events such as Thursday Night Live and University of Kentucky basketball games.

"The presence of 21c will give a more prominent position to visual arts in our cultural landscape, in the heart of downtown," says LexArts president and CEO Jim Clark. "It will contribute significantly to the visual arts scene in Lexington."

Lexington has an active visual arts scene, including downtown galleries and two major institutions on the periphery of the city's core: Lexington Art League, based at the Loudoun House at Castlewood Drive and Bryan Avenue, and The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, in the northwest corner of the Singletary Center for the Arts.

But an actual downtown Lexington art museum is a dream that has never been realized, though it has been discussed often. That has included proposals for the old courthouse building, which relatively briefly was home to the Lexington History Museum and is just across Upper Street from where 21c will take up residence in the old First National Bank building. Construction is just beginning, and completion is expected in 2015.

The art aspect of the project really hasn't received much attention yet. Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and director of art programming for the Louisville-based 21c company, says audiences should "expect the unexpected," but there are fairly good barometers of what the company does in its current properties — in Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark.

"It's really a two-pronged, integrated approach to being globally and locally minded," Stites says. "You will see an international collection of artwork, rotating exhibitions, thematic exhibitions, exhibitions of artists from all over the world both established and emerging, and we will also have some site-specific commissions. These are chosen specifically for the sites, so it's about the building, it's about the community and what's happening in the world today.

"We try to work with some of the most interesting and dynamic artists out there, so while I can't be specific about what site- specific works we will do in Lexington, they will be visible to the public, engaging and responsive to the building as well as to the city."

Art was one of the primary catalysts for philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson to launch 21c, which built its first hotel in Louisville in 2006. It has since expanded to Cincinnati and Bentonville, and is renovating a building in Durham, N.C.

Brown and Wilson's extensive collection is the basis for the exhibits that move through the hotels, supplemented with other pieces. It is work Clark says will be challenging to some Lexington audiences.

"It will be important in educating people about what contemporary art means," Clark says. "It is quite often provocative and unsettling and requires an understanding of what the artist is doing, particularly in the video installations."

While many of the discussions about a downtown art museum have centered on public-sector projects by the city, UK or a partnership between them, 21c will bring a museum downtown as a private business. But Stites emphasizes it will be run with a public spirit.

"The mission of the business is that culture drives commerce, and culture is something that should be accessible to all and integrated into everyone's lives, so it's an unusual thing and a new kind of model," she says, noting that as part of the hotel, the museum is open 24 hours a day with free admission.

Lexington Art League executive director Stephanie Harris, who has stayed at some 21c properties, says the Museum Hotel lives up to that ambition.

"They would not devote the entire first floor of their hotel to the museum if they were not committed to the idea of bringing contemporary art to the public," says Harris, who looks forward to working with 21c.

The collection is international, including a number of Kentucky artists, Stites says, but 21c looks to work with local groups, and not just visual arts organizations. She noted a new initiative at current properties to exhibit works by local artists on the guest room floors.

Clark and Gray say they hope the impact will stretch beyond the First National Bank Building.

"The worst thing would be if people said, 'Well, now we have a museum, we don't need anything else,'" Clark says. "Hopefully this will be a catalyst for people to say, 'What else do we want downtown and for visual arts in our city?'"

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