Brave New World: The 21C Museum Hotel – Wilson, Brown share their contemporary art with the place they call ‘home’

The unassuming building at West Main and Seventh streets looks a lot like the other structures on this thoroughfare, once known as Whiskey Row, which runs parallel to Louisville’s waterfront. Built in the late 19th century, it features traditional exteriors of cast iron with classical ornamental trimmings.

But these days, the building — actually five historic warehouse buildings fashioned into one edifice — is anything but traditional. Christened the 21C Museum Hotel, the $27 million project aims to be a landmark luxury hotel and contemporary art museum.

The 21C Museum Hotel, which opened in March, is a radical departure for Louisville, a cultural amenity reaching toward the future. Even the name — 21C — is forward-looking. It stands for 21st century.

The first conspicuous feature are the bellhops. Clad in black and red form-fitting body suits, they glide on two-wheeled Segways. (The outfits couldn’t help but remind us of Dieter, the old Mike Myers character on “Saturday Night Live.” Dieter was the German host of a fictional show called “Sprockets” who implored guests to “touch my monkey.”)

Inside, receptionists welcome guests to posh contemporary lodging — 91 rooms with iPods programmed with music requested by individual guests, 42-inch high-definition flat screen TVs and 500 thread-count sheets. On a ledge behind the receptionists is a line of sculptures of nude children in various poses. On the floor in front of the counter is a video projection, from a birds-eye view, of a couple sleeping and stirring in a bed beneath bright white sheets. The image is cast onto the floor from a projector in the ceiling.

From there, contemporary art fills all of the public areas, including the attached restaurant, Proof. It’s all a vision realized by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who bought the building in 1998, not long after they married. The couple announced their plans to build 21C in 2003.

“I think it allows people who live and work in Louisville to experience, if only for a couple hours, something otherworldly, something that’s totally outside of their daily experience,” Brown says.

As a property development, 21C is a bold addition to a growing list of visionary and multi-use downtown developments, including Hillerich & Bradsby’s Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and the Glassworks building. Those two projects were led by developer and architect Bill Weyland, and they were out of the norm because they weren’t mere real estate deals with an eye on profit, but instead projects that joined development with cultural amenities.

But 21C seems to surpass other downtown developments because of Brown and Wilson’s avid belief in art as a stimulus for commerce.

“We started to put it all together, knowing all along that there was sort of an unproven concept,” Wilson says.
While most capitalists don’t invest their cash in “unproven concepts,” Brown and Wilson, the power couple behind both 21C and the even more ambitious Museum Plaza proposal (see LEO, March 1, 2006), did all of the homework they could to be sure the project could pay for itself over time.

Wilson says the couple wanted to make a wise investment. “I didn’t just want to throw it out there and lose money every year,” he says.

They commissioned market studies and brought in architects, designers and curators to realize their vision. They also created a foundation, the 21C Museum Foundation, to subsidize 21C’s art and promote it. Their philosophy is more common to small-business entrepreneurs and artists: Operate by intuition and thrive in the presence of creativity, but also pay attention to detail and quality.

This is most clearly seen in their decisions to make the collection the main feature of the hotel and to make admission to the gallery space free to the public.

“People can walk right off the street and see art and not have to make a big production of getting there,” says Brown, who presents a conservative demeanor, often sitting with her hands comfortably crossed in front of her and opting to dress in slacks that fall in clean straight lines.

But some of their most daring decisions were made in choosing and acquiring the art collection shown at 21C.

Getting contemporary
For anyone expecting to find an Art Museum displaying and preserving time-honored works in traditional media, 21C might seem like a different galaxy, or perhaps a view into the funhouse mirror of contemporary art. For others, it will be a breath of fresh air, a relief that they don’t have to travel to New York or the Venice Biennale to see contemporary art.

The hotel museum has permanent pieces and two current exhibitions — “Hybridity” and “Looking Now” — that will show through September. With a subtitle “The Evolution of Species and Spaces in 21st Century Art,” “Hybridity” features creatures that look as though they have mutated into beautiful, mythic and frightening forms. It is showing just off the hotel lobby and includes several films projected in rotation in a room on the first floor. In “Looking Now,” arranged in the hotel’s 5,000-square-foot atrium, a range of portraits, both real and imagined, are displayed in a variety of media.

The exhibitions were organized by Louisville curator Alice Stites, who also has curated several exhibitions at The Speed Art Museum. Stites chose the pieces for “Hybridity” and “Looking Now” from more than 600 pieces Brown and Wilson have purchased together, plus a few they borrowed from artists whose work they enjoy.

Throughout the hotel hallways, lobbies, atrium, restrooms and restaurant (Proof) is a wide range of work in a wide range of media: large-scale photographic prints, wall-paper-sized prints of computer-generated images, video works, installations, mechanical devices and neon. There is a dearth of traditional media such as painting, drawing and sculpture. A few of the most interesting and expressive handmade objects are the collages of Michael Oatman (part of “Hybridity”), and the portraits of local people by Louisville painter Shayne Hull (inside Proof)

Overall, however, the large role played by technology is one of the collection’s most distinctive aspects. Video monitors and projections are ubiquitous. Visitors, literally, cannot escape them by going to the bathroom or taking the elevator. In the public restrooms on the first floor, eyes peer from video monitors embedded in the mirrors in a work by Cincinnati-based video artist Sean Bidic. Also on the first floor, but in front of the elevators, visitors see their own images projected in real time onto a wall with text falling, or ricocheting, or stopping in reaction to their projected selves, as part of “Text Rain” by Camille Utterback and Romy Achivuv. Each piece that employs video art requires its own DVD player and projection equipment, and all of them are housed in a basement room and overseen by William Morrow, director of the 21C Museum Foundation.

In the atrium, a computer-generated animated image of a twisting tree by artist Jennifer Steinkamp (“Dervish”) is projected high on the wall. The branches move in a silent ballet as their colors intensify and fade, depicting the change of seasons. The result is a remarkable image of a spiritual and ghostly tree.

But two of the more striking pieces in the museum that blend art and technology are not digital- or video-based; they are mechanical and were created by artist Ned Kahn. The first is “Wind Table,” which could be overlooked initially as it seems to be an ordinary coffee table in the lobby. But a glimpse through its glass top reveals a mesmerizing eco-system where a small pile of fine white sand is continually eroded by a hidden fan, all trapped in the confines of an otherwise unassuming piece of furniture. Kahn also created “Cloudring Sculptures,” three rounded chimneys that look like bulging but sleek metal mushrooms. Sitting outdoors off the atrium’s lower level, it’s easy to overlook the chimneys or mistake them for mechanical equipment related to building maintenance. Sporadically, the devices emit perfect rings of steam that waft upward and toward Seventh Street.

What’s in a name?
Overall, the art of 21C would fit well in almost any contemporary art center in the country or abroad: Much of the collection wouldn’t seem out of place at the Geffen Center in Los Angeles or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. But upon closer inspection, there is an absence of works by some of the usual “stars” of contemporary art museums: Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Kiki Smith, to name a few. (Brown and Wilson do own several pieces by high-profile artists such as Bill Viola and David Hockney, and they could be featured in future exhibitions. They have included a piece by Chuck Close in the fourth floor foyer.)

The fact that the current exhibitions don’t include famous names isn’t an oversight; Brown and Wilson say their purchases aren’t motivated by names. In the field of art collecting, which is often marked by complex philosophies, professional pedigrees and intellectual arguments, Wilson says, “It doesn’t matter if we’ve heard of the artist before or not. In fact, we prefer up-and-coming artists.” The couple say they trust something else more: “We need to connect with it emotionally,” Wilson says. Often their stories of purchasing art are intertwined with their life as a couple.

They also want the exhibits here to focus on the work of living artists. “If an artist dies,” Wilson jokes, “they are out here.”

None of this means Brown and Wilson haven’t given their collection significant thought, or taken steps to educate themselves and engage with professionals in the field, such as Julien Robson, the Speed Art Museum’s curator of contemporary art. They have.

“We probably wouldn’t make a mistake if we collected everything he suggested,” she says. “But we shoot straight from the hip.”

Wilson chimes in. “Occasionally we’ll ask for Julien’s opinion, and then we usually don’t listen,” he says with a laugh.

Chemistry: 21C
Contemporary art museums are often more akin to laboratories, experimenting with where art might go in the future, and Brown and Wilson say 21C could be seen as a laboratory for things to come for Museum Plaza.
But this approach is bound to place more emphasis on the “contemporary” nature of the work in an effort to create consensus and leave the more traditionally esteemed definitions of “art” open to debate. As such, contemporary art challenges the public and can become sources of contention and controversy.

In Kentucky, where some government officials have made posting the Ten Commandments a legislative priority, it’s not hard to imagine Brown and Wilson’s cultural activities getting caught up in culture-war demagoguery. Their collection contains work with political and sexual overtones, and they even have work by Andres Serrano, the photographer whose “Piss Christ” became a prime target of conservatives after it won an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C — one that the National Endowment for the Arts had funded. (That set off a chain of events that brought the work to the attention of former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who lambasted the agency for providing public funding to the artist who created it. Ultimately, “Piss Christ” became a case many politicians cited for cutting the NEA’s budget.)

But Brown and Wilson are non-confrontational. Asked if they thought Louisville was ready “to push the envelope,” they seemed to cringe at the possibility of misinterpreted motives.

“You know, everyone — every piece of art speaks to people in different ways and sometimes not at all,” Wilson says. “So, we’ve already found here, what is controversial to one person is not to another. And things that we think are nowhere near offensive in any way sometimes causes comments that really surprise us. So I think it has to do with the way you’re raised, your childhood, your sensibilities, your religion, your neighborhood. All these things enter into each individual experience.”

Art and aspirations
Brown, 64, and Wilson, 58, both recount personal stories dating to their youth that illustrate an attraction to the visual arts. Brown, great-granddaughter of Brown-Forman Corp. founder George Garvin Brown, has enjoyed a lifestyle that has afforded her the opportunity to learn about and see great art. She took art history classes in college, and in her 20s she began traveling with her mother on educational trips the elder Brown helped organized. Those trips were the nascence of what is now The Speed Art Museum’s New Art Collectors group. (The group, which Brown and Wilson belong to, travels to cities in the United States and abroad to visits museums, architectural sites, galleries, private collections and artists’ studios.)

Wilson, who sports a manicured beard with a stylized mustache and semi-rimless spectacles by UK designer Ted Baker, tells stories that reveal a wily boy growing up on a farm in Wickliffe, Ky. There the family raised “smelly pigs,” cattle, corn and soybeans, and his artistic adventures got him into trouble. For example, there’s the time in second grade when a teacher found he had drawn a picture of a nude woman. Once when he was in high school and his parents were out, he used his six-year-old brother as a model for a mask made of plaster of Paris. He had a book with instructions. He put Vaseline on his brother’s face and straws up his nose before coating his face in the plaster. Wilson says his parents were none too happy to come home and find Wilson’s younger brother “freaked out” and the mixing bowl broken.

During their adult lives, visual art has continued to play a prominent role. Brown is an artist who works in painting and photography. (A large reproduction of her oil painting of one of her grandsons hangs atop the building’s southeast side on Seventh Street.) And while they have amassed a sizable art collection since they married, both collected art before they met in the mid-1990s through a mutual friend. Both also have served on The Speed’s board of governors and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft board of directors. (Wilson is still on the board of the former and the current president of the latter.)

Wilson, who worked in public relations for three Kentucky governors, including John Y. Brown, cites KMAC founder and Gov. Brown’s ex-wife, Phyllis George Brown, as the person who has inspired him in this project and others. “Phyllis George taught me, ‘Never be afraid to ask. All they can say is no,’” Wilson says.

Wilson adds that he doesn’t want to limit himself and he hasn’t. In recent years, he and Brown have started several diverse projects, including The Kentucky Bison Co., a buffalo farm founded in 1996 ; Dogwood Hill Inn, Brown’s former Louisville home that they developed into a bed and breakfast housing some of the couple’s contemporary art; and, of course, Museum Plaza.

Wilson says all of the activity makes life more enjoyable. “I don’t want to look back and say I wish I’d done that,” he says.

The long view
Many of the art world’s greatest achievements have been built on large parts of intuition and passion. But it’s rare for organizations and large institutions to operate by these same principals.

The marvel of modern philanthropy, and especially cultural philanthropy, is the constructive conversion of our common need to be remembered, or recognized, into public cultural assets. Without it, there would be no Guggenheim or Whitney museums. More and more, savvy philanthropists know the steps they must take to assure the longevity of their endeavors so they do not become mere vanity projects. They include endowing institutions — in this case a luxury-hotel business and museum — that assume tax-exempt, not-for-profit status, and providing them with a mission that serves an important role in society. When this is woven into the fabric of an institution, these characteristics can ensure it doesn’t remain dependent on the presence of its founders.

Brown and Wilson have started this process by establishing the 21C Museum Foundation, which is a tax-exempt 501c(3) organization. But when they spoke with LEO in April, they were still formulating a mission statement and developing plans for an educational component. Most likely, a careful and considered process will result in a foundation that can reflect and maintain their passionate, open and ambitious approach.

Arguably, 21C and Museum Plaza have put Brown and Wilson in the position of strongly shaping Louisville’s visual art scene. Asked what was behind this lofty ambition, both seemed embarrassed by the notion that they could be perceived as “ambitious.” Brown tried to explain that there is “gratification” in doing “the right thing at the right time.” Wilson added, “It’s also satisfying to do things that people think are impossible.”

Altering Louisville’s   cultural landscape
Louisville is identified more often with its past, both real and imagined. The Kentucky Derby is just one example where the city has strongly attached itself to history. On the flip side, some leaders seem too often motivated to launch downtown projects (think of the various experiments on Fourth Street and even the current arena plans) from fear of falling behind, at best, rather than by the desire to invent a new kind of civic reality.
But 21C attempts to do just that, by directing our attention toward ideas about the contemporary world and the future.

On this front, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are important figures for Louisville’s cultural sector. Both grew up on farms in Kentucky and identify deeply with Louisville, but they also have a deep desire to bring the discoveries they have made in galleries, museums and studios around the world back to the place they call “home.” Their activities in the visual arts imply that we shouldn’t be forced to choose between the roots of home and the best the contemporary world has to offer.

The recent exhibition “Nowhere” — featuring the work of five Louisville-area artists, curated by the Speed’s Robson and displayed at the New Center for Contemporary Art in March and April — asked a similar question about making art here: Does place matter? Should it? (Brown and Wilson helped finance the exhibition.)

In an accompanying essay, Robson warned about a stultifying, defensive and anti-intellectual “parochial response” to the “main centers” of artistic discourse (New York, London, etc.). Conversely, in a fly-over city such as Louisville, there often is another strain of provincialism that is a sure ingredient for an identity crisis: wishing you were somewhere (or someone) else. (Our reasoning, not Robson’s.)

Several art critics, including Robert Hughes in his book “Shock of the New,” have observed how contemporary art has become increasingly identified with the times, or Zeitgeist, in which it is made, and less and less with the place(s) where it’s made.

As Brown and Wilson bring more contemporary art to Louisville, it raises the question: What role will place play? And how will their forward-looking approach to art and development change or mesh with the local culture?
Brown, who often speaks in metaphor, had a ready answer.

“It’s like the goose that’s flying overhead and sees this serene lake down there and cannot wait to land down there and ruffle up the water. I mean, that’s part of the deal, isn’t it?”

Contact the writers at [email protected]