It's a crisp early-spring Saturday in Kentucky, and I'm having breakfast with New York architect Deborah Berke and one of her clients, the philanthropist, art collector, and newly minted hotelier Steve Wilson. We're in Wilson's art-filled 19th-century Georgian mansion on Woodland Farm, a 1,000-acre estate overlooking the Ohio River outside Louisville, where Wilson lives with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, a member of the clan that controls the $2.7 billion liquor conglomerate Brown-Forman. (The company began distilling bourbon in 1870 and now owns Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, Finlandia vodka, and Fetzer wines, among others.) There's art everywhere—painting, photography, video, sculpture—all of it contemporary, much of it provocative. But the house looks relatively bare, Berke remarks. Indeed, between the life-size black-and-white image of a 1970's male porn star, meticulously rendered with hundreds of tiny stamens from plastic flowers, and the stacked vitrines displaying dozens of anatomically detailed phallic champagne flutes ("We used these on New Year's Eve," Wilson says, with a laugh), I notice holes in the walls, and empty hooks and hangers. Wilson confirms that they've moved many canvases and photographs to their 21C Museum Hotel, in downtown Louisville. The new 90-room property, which occupies five 19th-century brick buildings on West Main Street, is Wilson and Brown's current passion, and represents one of the most ambitious unions of art and hospitality ever undertaken.
The term museum hotel says everything about Wilson and Brown's mission. They see 21C as a bona fide cultural institution in the making, not just a hotel with art. Hiring Berke, a thoughtful minimalist and Yale professor who designed Industria Superstudios in New York and the Yale School of Art in New Haven, adds gravitas to the endeavor. Nearly three-quarters of the paintings, sculptures, photos, and video installations at 21C are part of Wilson and Brown's personal collection, valued at more than $10 million. In addition, the couple's 21C Foundation, which now administers their holdings, has purchased dozens of new works to fill the guest rooms, hallways, bathrooms, restaurant, bar, and 9,000 square feet of galleries. All of the works on view were produced by living artists—hence the hotel's name, a reference to the 21st century.
Wilson and Brown have hired a full-time museum director and lined up guest curators to organize twice-yearly temporary exhibitions. These shows will draw primarily on the 21C Foundation's holdings, but will also display work from other collections and institutions. The inaugural exhibition, "Hybridity: The Evolution of Species and Spaces in 21st-Century Art," includes three wallpaper-like prints by American artist Nicolas Lampert, on loan from MASS MoCA. Wilson says future shows will focus on themes such as fame, vanity, and death.
However you frame it, art has become a hotel amenity in America, one that bestows upon properties a sheen of sophistication and provides guests with glimpses of beauty or the shock of the new. The phenomenon is not limited to boutique hotels. Casino impresario Steve Wynn's rumored $300 million collection, with works by Gauguin, Monet, Cézanne, and Picasso, hangs throughout the Wynn resort in Las Vegas. Hotel chains are building corporate collections to showcase in the lobbies and guest rooms of their properties. Sonesta's 7,000 works, by Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt, Roy Lichtenstein, and others, are spread among the company's mid-market hotels and resorts. Guests can rent audio guides for tours of the art on site. The new Four Seasons in Palo Alto hopes to wow tech moguls with paintings and sculptures by Miró and Dalí. At the Park Hyatt Chicago, you can find works by Isamu Noguchi and Dale Chihuly. The focal point of the lobby is Gerhard Richter's 1968 Piazza del Duomo Milan, a 27-foot canvas purchased from Sotheby's for a reported $3.6 million.
Smaller, style-conscious hotels prefer contemporary work to mainstream masterpieces, not only for their less prohibitive price tags but also for the awe factor. The Sagamore in South Beach, a favorite with the Art Basel crowd, has been assembling a collection of Walker Evanses, Carlos Betancourts, and Liza May Posts, curated by Christine Taplin. The newest Chambers Hotel, which opens in Minneapolis in August, will showcase works by Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, and other contemporary artists. Even hotels without the means to acquire blue-chip art are tapping into this trend. Kimpton's cozy Alexis Hotel in Seattle mounts quarterly exhibitions of Pacific Northwest works in its own on-site Art Walk.
By the standards of Louisville, where overnight options have been limited to the stuffy Seelbach and Brown hotels or a corporate chain, 21C is off the charts. During opening week, I stay in a corner suite on the second floor, with 12-foot-high ceilings, arched windows, and views of the well-preserved cast-iron façades of the old distilleries along Main Street, once known as Whiskey Row. Many of the hotel's rooms face a glassed-in atrium above the basement-level gallery. There are no labels to identify the artwork on the walls, but Wilson says he's planning to publish a catalog to the complete 21C collection and place a copy in each room. I learn later that the photos above my bed are by French artist Pierre Gonnord and that the small images behind the dining table are by Loretta Lux. A tapestry that I instantly recognize as a pixilated work by Chuck Close hangs between two of the windows. Viewed from an angle, it comes into focus as a portrait of the photographer Lucas Samaras.
Berke's firm designed the furniture, including a stylish table topped with metallic blue glass and a cabinet that conceals two 42-inch plasma TV's—one for viewing from the bed, another for watching from the living area. A sleek black alarm clock has a built-in dock for an iPod, which the staff has loaded with an eclectic mix of music. (Wilson also plans to add a narrated tour of the collection to the program.).
Unlike other art-focused hotels, 21C is looking beyond the captive audience of overnight guests. Wilson and Brown hope to attract visitors to the city with the art in the hotel's public spaces, making 21C a vital part of downtown Louisville. "We asked ourselves, 'Can art stimulate business and generate economic development?'" Wilson tells me over bison tenderloin and country-ham fritters on a busy Friday night at the hotel's restaurant, Proof on Main. "We wanted to build a major project around art. And we wanted to be part of the revitalization of downtown. So a hotel seemed a natural fit."
Following the Bilbao model, art and architecture have become reliable components of urban renewal. In Louisville, where tourist season lasts for a single spring weekend, during the running of the Kentucky Derby, it's long been a challenge to lure people downtown. The appeal of horse country and the beautiful rolling bluegrass hills outside the city is undeniable. Hollywood superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer and his Louisville-born wife, Linda Balahoutis, have a sprawling horse farm 20 miles from the city center. The crown prince of Dubai and his family own 5,000 acres in the area and raise prize-winning Thoroughbreds. But in the town itself there are pedestrian-friendly streets and a fantastic collection of 19th-century cast-iron buildings, second only to that of New York's SoHo. A block from 21C is a 26-story building, headquarters of insurance giant Humana, that was designed by Michael Graves and helped launch the postmodern-architecture movement in 1985. All Louisville needs to be a thriving, growing, modern downtown, Wilson figures, is a few anchor attractions.
Perhaps a hotel with two galleries won't turn Louisville into the new Bilbao overnight, but the city is betting that concentrating a handful of cultural options downtown will strengthen its urban heart. Already there are several draws within walking distance of 21C. The Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft occupies one of the renovated cast-iron buildings across the street. The Louisville Slugger Museum is a couple of doors down, its giant baseball bat leaning against the brick façade. A few blocks east along the riverfront is the new Muhammad Ali Center, and next door to that is the Actors Theater, where the Humana Festival of New American Plays brings in producers and scouts from around the country each spring.
Still, Wilson and Brown are the biggest players in the downtown rejuvenation. The couple paid $26 million for the renovation of the hotel buildings. (Historic-preservation tax credits helped offset some of the cost, and the city pitched in a $1.7 million starter grant.) Now they're joining forces with a local developer to build Museum Plaza, a futuristic 61-story high-rise designed by OMA, Rem Koolhaas's firm. The $380 million project will house lofts, offices, a hotel, and a new art museum floating 20 stories above the riverfront. But until that ambitious project is completed, 21C remains the city's star attraction.
On this Friday night, Proof is packed with a buzzing mix of Louisville's young-and-fashionable set and old-guard stalwarts. They eat surrounded by a trio of sinewy goats strung above the open kitchen on ropes (earthenware sculptures by ceramic artist Beth Cavener Stichter), a wooden stag head wearing a leather S-M mask (a piece by Michael Combs), and photographs of men and their latex-doll "girlfriends" (a series by Elena Dorfman). Most of the crowd seems nonplussed by the art; some wander around the gallery after dinner in wide-eyed bewilderment, not sure what to make of Meyer Vaisman's taxidermy turkey with a giant wig on its back or the flock of four-foot-tall red plastic penguins that Wilson first saw at the last Venice Biennale. "We didn't want the art to dominate the space—you have to be careful not to scare people," Berke says. Staffers tell me that Louisville has good restaurants, but locals aren't used to venturing downtown for dinner. The art should help draw suburbanites to Proof, and the cuisine—much of it from local suppliers and organic farms—will feed the museum's audience.
Meanwhile, the affable Wilson, a onetime art student and the public-relations man for three former Kentucky governors, is getting a kick out of gauging people's responses to the art ("It's provocative, but not unapproachable"), not to mention the nonstop nightly meeting and greeting. "I've never had so much fun in my entire life," he says. Afterward, as we walk through the galleries, Wilson explains that his taste for art with high shock value comes from his rural Kentucky childhood. "I couldn't wait to get off the farm. Everyone was very conservative and very repressed, especially about sex," he says.
The galleries themselves were designed by Berke in her usual spare-but-polished industrial style. The temporary exhibition space, located where most hotels would put the lobby, has dark-wood floors, exposed-brick walls, and beadboard ceilings that contrast with slender painted-steel columns. A staircase leads down to another gallery, a skylit atrium with polished concrete floors, exposed- brick piers, and steel trusses towering above Yinka Shonibare's Dorian Gray series, a pair of huge Sam Taylor-Wood photographs, and other works.
Because the project entailed the restoration of five historic buildings, including the former Bunbury Theater and the old Falls City Tobacco Bank, the architects had to reveal as much of the original 1860's structures as possible. Berke and her team also salvaged old poplar floorboards and joists and turned them into bar fronts, banquettes, and the front desk. The restaurant floors are made from recycled carpet backing; the black headboard walls in the guest rooms are made of panels of tiny black beads that were once milk containers. These elements lend textures to the interiors that suit the historic architecture.
Looking ahead, Wilson and Brown are planning to bring another 6 to 10 museum hotels, also designed by Berke, to small cities around the country. They're scouting historic properties in need of recycling in Austin, Atlanta, and Nashville, and thinking about other locations. "We want cities with a university and a youthful attitude," Wilson says. "We want to be somewhere that might be starving for art."
21C Museum Hotel, 700 W. Main St., Louisville, Ky.; 502/217-6300; www.21cmuseumhotel.com; doubles from $209. "Hybridity: The Evolution of Species and Spaces in 21st-Century Art" is on view through September.
HIGHLIGHT Damien Hirst's Judas Iscariot, a bull's head suspended in a formaldehyde-filled glass case, above, part of the artist's Twelve Disciples series. THE FACTS 901 Hennepin Ave.; www.chambersminneapolis.com; opening in late August.
Four Seasons Palo Alto
HIGHLIGHT A silk-screen print from Josef Albers's 1972 series "Formulation; Articulation." THE FACTS 2050 University Ave.; 800/819-5053 or 650/566-1200; www.fourseasons.com.
Grand Wailea Maui
HIGHLIGHT Eighteen bronze sculptures by Fernand Léger, one of the largest collections outside the Biot & Léger Museum in Antibes, France. THE FACTS 3850 Alanui Dr.; 800/888-6100 or 808/875-1234; www.grandwailea.com.
Park Hyatt Chicago
HIGHLIGHT Gerhard Richter's 27-foot Piazza del Duomo, Milan (1968). THE FACTS 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 800/778- 7477 or 312/335-1234; www.hyatt.com.
Sagamore Miami Beach
HIGHLIGHT Russell Crotty's Blue Vega Over Dry Chapparal, above, an ink and watercolor interpretation of the atmosphere, wrapped around a Lucite globe and suspended in the lobby. THE FACTS 1671 Collins Ave.; 305/535-8088; www.sagamorehotel.com.
Wynn Las Vegas
HIGHLIGHT Picasso's Le Rêve, bought at Christie's for a record $60 million, is behind the front desk. THE FACTS 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/320-9966 or 702/770-7100; www.wynnlasvegas.com.