The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
In the lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, elevated behind the concierge desk, is an epic painting of a young man in a New Era ballcap, gold rope chain, undershirt, and jeans slung low to reveal his plaid boxer shorts. His body is soft and limp, his eyes glassy, and his look—punctuated by a tattoo on his shoulder of a thorn-crowned Jesus carrying the cross—evinces a state of being rarely associated with black men: vulnerability. The effect of the artwork might put one in mind of an old adage by hip-hop philosopher Lauryn Hill: “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” In any case, once it locks you into its stare, the painting makes it hard to look away.
Collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson couldn’t look away either. In 2008, they purchased the striking 9-by-15-foot Morpheus (2008) by a then burgeoning artist named Kehinde Wiley who would go on to paint a formal portrait of President Barack Obama and install enormous and historically charged public statuary in New York’s Times Square. Brown and Wilson, for their part, would go on to develop a new way of collecting art and sharing their devotion with audiences beyond the typical museum and gallery bounds.
The couple, who married in 1997, have amassed a collection of some 3,000 works of contemporary art from their home base in Louisville, Kentucky. Their repertoire includes work by established names like Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Anthony Goicolea, Ai Weiwei, and Nick Cave alongside emerging artists like Bisa Butler and Jody Paulsen. Unlike many collectors, they do not consult with advisers or look to a committee to vote on who or what to buy. And unlike almost all, Brown and Wilson show their work mainly in their growing chain of 21c Museum Hotels.
The idea was inspired in part by the couple’s travels to art gatherings like the Venice Biennale and Art Basel but, more broadly, by exposure to the ways that art has revolutionized regional communities around the globe, which made them think of prospects to help revitalize Louisville. “We were so taken by the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao—it blew my mind,” Wilson recalled. Like Bilbao, Louisville is a small river town with an agricultural history. Also like the city in the north of Spain, Louisville was in need of a cultural and economic recharge.
Getting off the ground had its challenges. “The idea of combining the restaurant and the hotel and the museum was so unknown that the bankers told us it was ridiculous,” Wilson remembered. “Nobody would ever fund that. Who would ever come?”
Since then, 21c has grown to comprise eight locations—the Louisville flagship, plus others in Bentonville, Arkansas; Cincinnati; Durham, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Lexington, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; and Nashville, plus plans for more in Chicago, St. Louis, and Des Moines, Iowa. “What we have now are museums that are open 24 hours a day [and] completely free to the public, every day of the year,” Wilson said.
The annual art cycle at 21c revolves around eight core exhibitions and about 20 smaller shows, all of which are overseen and often curated by 21c’s museum director and chief curator, Alice Gray Stites, who worked previously for Brown and Wilson’s former public art project, Art Without Walls, as well as the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. “We want everyone who walks through our doors to feel welcome, inspired, represented, challenged, and included,” Stites said. “We want everyone to see themselves or their culture represented and also discover faces and places that are unfamiliar. That’s how art serves to drive empathy, and we certainly need more of that.”
“Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance,” an exhibition now stationed in Cincinnati (and on view into summer 2020), features one of Nick Cave’s decadently beaded “Soundsuits” (which he created in response to unrest after the beating of Rodney King) along with other works assembled in consideration of “the complexity of contemporary identity.” Another exhibition, “Refuge,” on view in Bentonville until next fall, features Peruvian artist Jota Castro’s welded-steel gates topped with barbed wire (conceived in 2002 as a critique of George W. Bush’s immigration policies) and Irish photographer Richard Mosse’s arresting images of heat-mapped pictures documenting the refugee crises in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The minds behind 21c are collectively interested in difficult dialogues. “It’s the reason there’s very little abstract art in our collection,” Brown said, “because it doesn’t really meet the needs we have to provoke discussion.”
In places that don’t always thrive in terms of art, 21c Museum Hotels are effectively engaging in what more traditional cultural institutions are struggling with: real, meaningful dialogue with their audiences. “There’s no admission fee, which is really important,” Stites said. “You don’t walk in thinking, ‘I have to know someone. I have to be someone. I have to pay for it.’ There’s no velvet rope.”