By Elizabeth Preske
September 08, 2019
Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

Just blocks away from lower Broadway — a busy strip full of honky tonks, live country music, and party buses saddled with cowboy boots-clad bachelorette parties — is an elegant hotel that may as well be in a whole different universe.

One of eight boutique hotels in a nationwide chain, 21c Museum Hotel Nashville is a hotel and contemporary art museum rolled into one. 21c founders Laura Lee Brown — whose family owns Jack Daniel’s, the famed Tennessee whiskey — and Steve Wilson opened the first location in Louisville, Kentucky as a way to share some 3,000 pieces of art from their private collection with the public.

For the art lover, 21c is truly a feast for the eyes. The Nashville location itself boasts roughly 200 pieces of art — paintings and sculptures and audiovisual productions on display throughout the entire hotel: in the lobby, the restaurant, hallways, elevators, guest rooms, and of course, the art galleries.

Three of the 124 guest rooms and suites serve as “Artist Suites,” and feature installations from artists. Painter Sebastiaan Bremer and musician-composer Josephine Wiggs teamed up to deck out the Sanctuary 21csuite with guitars, an easel, and a Mac, the walls alive with floral wallpaper and prints of flowers. The room serves to encourage its visitors to fully immerse themselves in the hotel experience, inspiring them to make art and contribute to its creative undertaking.

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

Although art is not the focus of the rest of the rooms, each one contains a piece of original artwork.

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

While you have to be a guest to explore the upper hallways, 21c Museum Hotel Nashville has three floors of art that’s free to the public. “This is not a feel-good art gallery” a hotel docent warned me — as she warns everyone — before taking me on a tour of the galleries (free and open to the public Tuesdays 6 p.m. – 7 p.m. and Thursdays 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.).

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

She was right. The theme of the current exhibition, The SuperNatural, is centered around the digital age in a post-industrial world. “Landscape,” read a sign summarizing the exhibit, “once the realm of the bucolic and pastoral, now appears alluring and alarming, fantastical, threatening, and threatened, reflecting the earth’s evolution toward an Anthropocene: a planet whose contours and contents will be defined by human activity.”

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

Facing the elevator on the ground floor is a glass box outlined in wood, its contents filled to the brim with green, plastic objects: sunglasses and bubble wands, yard tools and plastic plants. Their vibrant color, calling forth nature, has been used to market objects that destroy it.

A glittering collection of glass beads hides the figure of a taxidermied monkey. The beads represent a pixilated world, one that society has come to see through the filter of its phones, tablets, and cameras.

Still, it was powerful, beautiful, and haunting in its premonitions. Relaxing, even, when I took a Saturday morning yoga class in the main gallery (Saturdays 10 a.m. – 11 a.m.; free to hotel guests and $5 to the public). As I faced digitally-derived images of a forest, the bird-like chirps from a nearby art display providing a peaceful pink noise, my tree and mountain poses never felt more natural.

It’s not always bleak, the docent assured me. The Bentonville, Arkansas location, for instance, is currently hosting an exhibition on feminism, femininity, and female representation. The art also rotates between the 21c hotels, with the Nashville location bringing in a new exhibition every eight months.

Lest you think 21c takes itself too seriously, it doesn’t. Scattered throughout the hotel is a flock of giant penguins made of recyclable plastic. Each location has its own colony; in Nashville, they are teal.

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

“The public really chose the penguins,” said co-founder Steve Wilson. “They were part of our opening exhibition in Louisville and people couldn’t help but interact with them. They would move them around, take photos with them, take them to dinner and to their rooms. They have really become an icon, and emblematic of our mission to make thought-provoking contemporary art more accessible to the public.”

Like thieves in the night, hotel staff moves the penguins around and positions them in the most unexpected and unusual places. One morning, I wandered down my hall to see them all lined up in a row, ready to march into a guest room. Another night I was eating by myself in the hotel restaurant when my waiter sat one of the lovable creatures in front of me. “I thought you could use the company,” he said.

Dinner at Gray & Dudley was a gorgeous affair. At my waiter’s suggestion, I tried the charred caulilini, perfectly seasoned with black sesame, crunchy chili oil, and lime ($11). I moved onto the 10-ounce Tennessee strip loin, dry-aged and buttery and served with potato puree and Roma tomatoes ($35). For dessert, I indulged in the beignets, each one filled with Vietnamese coffee cream, and dipped them in the dulce de leche crema for a heavenly bite ($9).

Credit: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
Credit: Elizabeth Preske

The next night I returned to the restaurant for cocktails. The bartender told me I was there just in time to sample the summer menu as they rotate the menu every season. I started with the Daisy, a delightful cocktail made with Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka, lime, pomegranate, and soda ($10). Naming it after a gang in the 1979 film "The Warriors," the bartender next handed me The Lizzies, a drink of her own creation ($12). She concocted it out of cold brew coffee and mole bitters, and I couldn’t believe I had never had a cocktail with cold brew in it before.

Rooms start at $266. To tour all eight 21c Museum Hotels and participate in exclusive activities, book the Paint Your Passport experience.