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.