There is no escaping the contemporary art at Kentucky’s 21c Museum Hotels. At both the Louisville flagship and newer Lexington outpost, the visual assault starts in the lobby and continues at the check-in desk, throughout the ground-floor galleries, down the hallways, inside the elevators, and into the guest suites. Talk about an immersive art experience—even the urinals in the hotel’s public restrooms have one-way mirrors.
This isn’t bougie, safe, generic “hotel art,” either. Co-founded by private collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, 21c devotes every inch of its wall and floor space to divisive, thought-provoking works. Take Al Farrow’s recent “Wrath and Reverence” exhibition in Louisville. The Bay Area artist used guns, bullets, spent casings, broken glass, twisted steel, and fragments of bone to build ornate scale-model replicas of churches, synagogues, and mosques. No sides were explicitly taken—everyone is guilty of something, posits Farrow—but it was still a damning indictment of the relationship between religion and war, fear mongering and blind faith.
Some works at 21c are permanent—like Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya’s giant, gold, Michelangelo-inspired David statue that stands naked guard in front of the hotel. Drop by 21c’s bar and restaurant, Proof on Main, for an inventive seasonal cocktail and a fine view of Dave’s derrière.
Like its Louisville sister, the 21c in Lexington doesn’t play it safe when it comes to art curation. The image at the top of this page is a detail shot from Indian artist Vivek Vilasini’s Last Supper—Gaza panorama. The work uses a da Vinci-inspired lineup of women in niqabs to address the hardships of modern-day Palestinians. The 2008 piece was part of the hotel’s inaugural “Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation” exhibition, which grappled with issues of discrimination and injustice and featured a tilt-a-whirl of illuminating works by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE and Jamaican artist Ebony Patterson, among others.
The coolest part? You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to check out these collections. Every museum hotel under the 21c umbrella—including branches in Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, Durham, NC, and Bentonville, AR—is free and open to the public. For folks who do want to stay the night, rooms start around $199 a night—not so outrageous considering that even the basic accommodations are kitted out with original art, plush robes, and luxurious Malin + Goetz toiletries.
700 W. Main St., Louisville, KY; 502-217-6300.
167 W. Main St., Lexington, KY; 859-899-6800.