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Art at Louisville's Hotel 21C

Annie Schlechter A suite with a portrait by Chuck Close.

Photo: Annie Schlechter

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.

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