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Art at Louisville's Hotel 21C

Annie Schlechter A suite with a portrait by Chuck Close.

Photo: Annie Schlechter

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.

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