Louisville: Art Escape
Soak up culture and a comfy stay at the contemporary 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville.
The Museum's art carries into its touted Proof on Main, one of the best restaurants in the city.
Photos courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel
At first glance, 21c Museum Hotel looks like any other building in Louisville’s urban museum district. Architecturally beautiful, its stone facade blends in with the surrounding historic neighborhood. That is, until you look up and a bright red penguin overlooking the main entrance catches your eye. Turn the corner and a 38-foot Styrofoam and steel, gold-painted replica of Michelangelo’s “David” hints there is something different about this particular spot.
And as you may now suspect, 21c is far from the average museum or hotel.
It’s a museum masquerading as a hotel at night. And it’s a hotel with the most impressive contemporary art collection outside of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s no surprise 21c has been touted as one of the world’s coolest places to stay.
Contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson had two passions. The first was to contribute to revitalization efforts in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The second was to share their love of contemporary art and help make it a part of peoples’ daily lives. They partnered with renowned architect Deborah Berke to renovate five former warehouses, and in 2006, their dream materialized in the form of 21c Museum Hotel. The name itself pays homage to the 21st century, when all the art in the museum hotel was created.
By its very nature, contemporary art is mutable and experiential. It’s an event that changes with each interaction, and it’s rarely passive. The art housed at 21c exemplifies that; much of it is designed to be interactive. For example, those red penguins that greet visitors were one of the museum’s first exhibitions. Patrons and staff alike could (and still sometimes do) move these recycled plastic creatures around the museum and hotel at will, so they were rarely in the same place twice. Some guests even found them inside their rooms at check-in.
“That is exemplary of the kind of art that you can find at 21c. It’s about an interactive experience,” says Stephanie Greene, the museum’s public relations manager. “There’s art everywhere. You experience art whether you’re dining or attending a meeting. There really is art everywhere on the property.”
Another guest favorite greets visitors as they approach the elevator bank in the main building. Called “Text Rain,” this interactive piece projects a person’s image onto a huge, blank wall. There, falling words settle on the image of the person standing in front of the wall (you as you wait for the elevator), mimicking falling rain.
Some pieces are as functional as they are intriguing. The art car “Pipmobile” is a working limousine covered in red glass beads to mimic the interior of a pomegranate. VIP guests can opt to be picked up from the airport, for example, by hotel staff driving the flashy limo.
Contemporary art isn’t limited to display pieces at 21c, either. There’s a monthly poetry series, as well other cultural programming such as artist and curator lectures, musical performances and film showings.
True to the founders’ vision, 21c is making contemporary art more accessible and more immersive than ever before. There is no admission fee for the museum portion of the establishment. And it’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the week, with guided tours offered most Fridays and Saturdays.
Installations are a mix of permanent pieces, like “Text Rain,” commissioned exhibitions and rotating thematic displays, which change ab
out twice a year. Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and director of art programming, works with the rest of the curatorial staff to carefully select work from up-and-coming artists. Additionally, 21c hosts traveling exhibitions and borrows from and loans to other contemporary art museums.
“The art is really carefully selected … with an eye toward exceptional art,” says Gray Stites. “When a topic is provocative, that’s a good thing. It’s thought provoking.” The non-traditional style of 21c actually lends to a more flexible, open-minded approach to contemporary art, she adds. “When you create a framework where people can be more relaxed and engaged, you can provoke people a bit for the sake of broadening perspectives.
“Contemporary art is a reflection of what is happening in the world around us. Art allows us to think about those issues, to engage them, to have conversations.”
Art permeates every inch of the five-building complex, including its 90 rooms, which feature high ceilings and large windows to better display the pieces. Charming, industrial elements like exposed brick walls and pewter mint julep cups complement modern decor and conveniences such as iPod docking stations, luxurious bedding and plush bathrobes.
Guests can choose between city and atrium views for their standard rooms or suites. The well-appointed Corner Suite features gorgeous views of downtown Louisville through four enormous windows, a dinette set, sitting area and a 42-inch flat-screen HDTV. Some suites include a semi-private rooftop terrace that overlooks the historic Seventh Street, but the real jewel of the 21c’s hotel portion is the Rooftop Apartment. This exclusive retreat boasts 1,300-plus square feet of living space, including a bedroom, a full bath plus two half baths, a full kitchen, an open concept living and dining area and a private garden terrace.
A variety of packages include themes such as birthday celebrations, romance, bourbon and, of course, art exploration. With special perks, including a dining credit to 21c’s in-house restaurant, Proof on Main, or a bottle of champagne waiting for you in the room, you’re sure to feel like royalty.
It’s no surprise to discover that the museum’s exhibitions and displays carry through into the dining and bar areas of Proof on Main—a restaurant touted as one of the best in the city. The rotating exhibitions change about once a year, but the menu is updated seasonally, and sometimes even weekly, Greene says. The upscale, familiar food offerings are locally sourced from Kentucky farms. The main source for menu items is Woodland Farms, which is owned by 21c founders Brown and Wilson. Woodland Farms supplies fresh eggs, sustainably grown produce, heirloom fruits, Hereford and Mulefoot hogs, and even hormone-free, grass-fed bison.
Although the menu is based on what’s locally available, hearty offerings such as bison burgers and bone-in pork chops are standard fare. In the warmer months, look for house-made gelato and heirloom tomato salads.
And don’t forget to check out the bar at Proof on Main, too. It has a library of more than 50 Kentucky bourbons and was named one of GQ magazine’s “New Whiskey Temples.” Try a small batch or single barrel bourbon, or sample one of the bourbon and rye tasting flights. The innovative cocktail list is full of fresh ingredients, and it changes seasonally to complement changing menu items. Of course, the best beverages make the list of signature, year-round cocktails.
“It’s very much a place for locals in addition to hotel guests,” Greene says. And with its status on the famous Louisville Urban Bourbon Trail (see “Five Things To Do”), it’s not hard to see why. To celebrate this status, Proof on Main has hand-selected a unique collection of small batch bourbons that celebrate artisan craftsmanship.
And Everything Else
With the attention paid to food, art and in-room amenities, it’s no surprise that 21c offers a variety of spa and fitness services to round out your stay. Looking for a quick workout? Head down to the hotel gym complete with weightlifting and cardio equipment with integrated video and Internet. A sauna and steam room complete the fitness center. If yoga’s more your thing, stop by the weekly Yoga with Art class to stretch as you contemplate the latest exhibition.
For those wanting a bit of relaxation after a day of wandering the city, opt for a Swedish, deep tissue, reflexology, aromatherapy, prenatal or sports massage. Prefer a combination of techniques? Schedule a customized treatment tailored to your needs.
Another aspect that puts 21c a step above chain hotels is its commitment to Southern hospitality. Hotel managing director Craig Pishotti attributes much of the staff’s friendliness to the hotel’s dynamic, ever-changing nature. Because the staff isn’t required to wear uniforms, they are able to really be themselves at work, he explains: “They are genuinely excited to come to work every day, and I think that translates to our guests.”
As if all that were not enough, 21c offers a variety of signature Treats, delivered to your door with a smile and a personalized note by hotel staff. Treats are themed, so you can order a Crunch, with mixed nuts, dried fruit and your choice of three beers or sodas for a card game with the guys. Or celebrate with the Fizz with Food, which includes a bottle of bubbly, two glasses, strawberries and mixed nuts. Other Treats include a cured meats plate, a seasonal artisan cheese plate, and even milk and cookies.
Emma Frankart is a freelance writer in Columbus
21c Museum Hotel
700 W. Main St., Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau
Traveler Tip: 21c in Louisville is so popular, the brand is expanding. A new location opened in Cincinnati in December 2012, and the museum hotel is scheduled to open in Bentonville, Arkansas, in March 2013. Each location will have its own distinctive flair, so head to Louisville for the original experience.