Checking In

It may be a luxe boutique hotel with a first-rate restaurant. But 21c Museum Hotel is all about the art.
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Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

Art is everywhere at  the new 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. No matter where you go—the elevators, the roof, the meeting rooms, even the lobby bathroom—you’ll find it. Or it will find you.

Glance down as you slurp water from the first floor drinking fountain and you’ll see Healing Tiles, an interactive floor projection by Boston artist Brian Knep. When a guest steps on a tile’s glowing, amoeba-like pattern, it breaks apart, then “heals” itself into a different shape, leaving a record of a visitor’s footfall. Or peer into the solarium—a seven-story glass-and-brick interior light well—as you head to your room and, no matter which floor you’re on, you’ll get a glimpse of the three enormous (they hang nearly floor to ceiling) glowing tapestries of woven fiber optic threads and LEDs by Danish artist Astrid Krogh. In the hotel’s chic Metropole restaurant you’ll be confronted by the brooding, intricate woodcut prints and animation that make up The Jackleg Testament, a retelling of the Adam and Eve story by Cincinnati artist, composer, and musician Jay Bolotin. Total immersion is the hotel’s raison d’être, says Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and director of art programming for 21c Museum Hotels. “The mission of 21c is to integrate contemporary art into everyday life,” she says. “The founders, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, believe strongly that art should be a part of everyone’s life and that people should encounter it wherever they go.”

Brown and Wilson opened the first 21c in 2006 in a series of redesigned 19th century warehouses in Louisville. The couple was committed to protecting Kentucky farmland from suburban sprawl and decided that helping to revitalize the urban core of their hometown was a good first step. They had also amassed a considerable collection of contemporary art and wanted to share it with the public.

Since then, their hotel-museum in Louisville has been showered with accolades. Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards ranked it the best hotel in America in 2009 and 2010 and the best hotel in the South in 2012. And it has burnished Louisville’s reputation as a destination for conventions and leisure travelers. It’s a unique draw, says Jim Wood, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Cincinnati is very, very fortunate to be getting a 21c hotel,” he notes.

Why Cincinnati? Wilson and Brown liked that the location was near both the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Contemporary Arts Center. That, coupled with Cincinnati’s already strong art scene, convinced them that a 21c could be a success here. In 2009, Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) purchased the Metropole Hotel and worked with 21c to secure financing for roughly $58 million worth of renovations, which included traditional loans, a $2.5 million grant, and state and federal tax credits. The acquisition of the Metropole building—which had been housing low-income residents for years—was not without controversy (see Cedric Rose’s profile of homeless advocate Josh Spring on page 62). But that never dimmed local leaders’ enthusiasm for the project.

“It’s going to add a great deal to the cultural fabric of Cincinnati,” gushed Mayor Mark Mallory, a few weeks before the 21c opened. “You have, first of all, a great hotel, where the service is fantastic and the rooms are very comfortable. Then there’s the fact that the entire hotel is a gallery. Everywhere you turn, there’s going to be interesting things to look at in the vestibules, in the hallways, and in the rooms themselves.”

James Crump, chief curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum, said 21c has a reputation for outstanding exhibitions built around Brown’s and Wilson’s impressive collection. And as far as their potential effect on the local arts and cultural scene? Well, he doesn’t hold back. The new hotel “will be a powerful catalyst that will transform the cultural landscape of this city,” Crump predicts.

The city has already gotten a taste of that. In 2011, CAM presented The Way We Are Now, an exhibit of works from the couple’s collection that explored contemporary issues in politics, race, and sex. Stites anticipates future collaborations with the art museum and next door at the CAC. “I hope we can do projects together that broaden the programming for an exhibition or an artist,” she says. “That will help make Cincinnati even more of an arts destination than it already is.”

The hotel’s exhibits are free and open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Which means that after a performance at the Aronoff, or a Reds double-header, or a late-night dance party around the corner at Play, anyone can wander through the lobby, ride the elevators, stop in the video immersion room, and visit the rooftop bar and lounge (opening this spring). Nothing, save the individual guest rooms, is off-limits.

Which is marvelously egalitarian, but it also reveals how grand an experiment the 21c full-service art hotel concept is. What’s also interesting is that it’s being pioneered in the middle of the country. First there was 21c Louisville. Now we’re getting 21c Cincinnati. Under construction is a 21c in Bentonville, Arkansas. Two more—in nearby Lexington and Durham, North Carolina—are in the design stages. Eventually, New Yorkers and Los Angelenos may get a 21c. But for now, they’ll have to wait.


String Theory
The hotel has 156 rooms, 8,000 square feet of exhibition/event space, a spa, and the Metropole restaurant and bar. Chef Michael Paley’s cuisine draws on the city’s European heritage and features “string roasted” meats and ash-cooked vegetables from the custom-built hearth.

No Flight Risk
Exhibits change throughout the year, but part of the permanent collection is a flock of 25 yellow penguin sculptures made of recycled plastic. The staff repositions these randomly throughout the building.

Naming Rites
The hotel’s name refers to the 21st century—a nod to Brown’s and Wilson’s passion for art-of-the-moment. Exhibits feature artists alive and working today—often at the point where art and technology intersect.

Pumping Irony
When CAM hosted The Way We Are Now, a highlight of that show was Fat Bat, an obese Batman sculpture by French artist Virginie Barré. Fat Bat is currently part of the 21c Louisville collection.

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