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19 DECEMBER 2023

Art infuses everything – Alice Gray Stites gives us an insight into curating exhibitions and commissions for 21c Museum Hotels

A multi-venue contemporary art museum, 21c Museum Hotel has over 75,000 sq ft of exhibition space and is one of the largest museum settings for contemporary art in the United States.


In August this year, its newest location, 21c St. Louis, threw open the doors to welcome guests into the carefully restored 95-year-old Renaissance Revival-style, former YMCA building. Featuring site-specific art installations ,rotating, curated exhibitions, and 173 artistically appointed rooms, over 14,000 square feet of new exhibition space was added to 21c’s footprint with this stunning property. Outfitted with original artworks by artists from all over the world, as well as a number who have strong ties to Missouri, including Carmon Colangelo, Collin W. Elliott, Brandon Forrest Frederick, Bethanie Irons and La Vispera, 21c St Louis was expertly curated but the 21c’s in-house team of arts professionals led by Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director at 21c Museum Hotels. She recently sat down with us to discuss historic buildings, the curation process, celebrating unsung cities, and empowering local artists.

Opening up the inaccessible – it’s an important pillar of the 21c brand. Open seven days per week, 24 hours per day and free of charge, 21c is on a mission to remove all barriers to make art and culture inclusive and accessible.

“At 21c, we believe that thought-provoking contemporary art can have a positive effect on everyone’s life. At times people may feel intimidated by art, especially by contemporary art,” says Alice, “By removing the barriers to access, starting with any kind of admissions fee, but extending to the perception of a velvet rope, of being intimidated to go into spaces that present contemporary art, we are making these artworks, and the ideas and experiences around them accessible to a really wide variety of people.”

“We know that our audience includes hotel guests – some of them who are coming because of the art, and some of whom have no idea what they are walking into,” she explains, “And I love that people’s lives can be touch either through a direct engagement or even in a kind of osmosis process because it’s there, and they come back over time and discover something different or something new or something they’ve never seen before.”

Art is infused into everything 21c does. You will find it around every corner – in guest rooms, dining rooms, elevators, on the floors you walk upon and suspended from the ceilings. So, whether you’re visiting to view an exhibition or simply starting your day with a cup of coffee in the Good Press café in St. Louis – 21c’s first coffee shop – you’ll find a beautiful, wood-panelled historic room. And installed on the domed ceiling, is Until We Meet Again, a kaleidoscopic artwork by Missouri native Nick Cave and partner Bob Faust – there is always an opportunity to view the art.

With over 75,000 sq ft of exhibition space across its properties, where does one even begin curating? Alice happily explains, “The site-specific installations – that is a very exciting and fun process. And that happens as soon as the design and renovation is underway. We’ll start looking at the space allocation – where is the restaurant going to go, what floors are the hotel rooms on, where are the meeting rooms, and where are the event spaces. And inevitably, especially in historical renovations, there are these extra spaces, or spaces that don’t immediately lend themselves to an obvious use. And I like to think of those as the interstitial spaces that otherwise could be overlooked but connect important spaces in the building. So we identify those spaces and see what kind of art could go in there that could draw people in or move people through in a way that creates an interesting experience.”

“A great example is the elevator lobby in Louisville, the site of one of our most popular, permanent, commissioned pieces, titled Text Rain”, Alice goes on. An interactive installation in which participants use the familiar instrument of their bodies to do what seems magical—to lift and play with falling letters that do not exist. “I love this because if you think about standing in an elevator lobby next to a stranger, it can be quite awkward. But then, you start playing with a video projection artwork where letters come to rest on anything darker than a certain threshold, and you can start to read a poem about bodies and language. Inevitably, whenever I walk by, I see people playing with it and connecting with each other.”

And then, there’s the rotating, curated exhibitions. “The Rubik’s cube”, she laughs, “That’s what I call our exhibition schedule. The process to date has been that when we open a new location, the inaugural exhibition is always something brand new. Mostly, the work is from the permanent collection, and a lot of whichwill have been acquired during the, say, two years of renovations on the property. During that time, I’m thinking about what theme would resonate well within that architectural space, that community, and most importantly, what is going on in the world right now that people are concerned about. I’ll have those conversations with our founder, Steve Wilson, who’s very involved in the collection and in the exhibitions program.”

“The inaugural exhibition reflects why we’re there, why here, and why now,” she elaborates, “the themes emerge directly from the artwork. I’m not laying meaning on top of them; the artworks are in conversations with each other. Putting this piece beside that one often illuminates a whole spectrum of ideas.”

After about a year, the exhibition moves to its next location. “When they travel, the exhibition either grows or shrinks, depending on the different exhibition space and event space that we have. But I alsowant them to remain relevant, so they often change or shift or distil in some way.” For example, Alice tells us about the latest reincarnation of Labour and Materials, an exhibition that recently travelled to 21c Lexington. “This was an exhibition that has been travelling for a few years and last year, I realised that the next time we showed it, it had to change. Prior to 2020, the exhibition was about the evolution of work or industry due to the expansion of automation and other forms of technology. With the influence of Covid, we have a new understanding and new appreciation for what is essential labour and the show’s emphasis thus shifted. Our understanding of these topics changes so quickly that we want to ensure that at 21c we’re staying relevant and wanting to share as broad and as deep an expanse of the conversation as we can.”

As if the 21c team didn’t already have their work cut out for them, they regularly collaborate with other cultural institutions – the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Speed Art Museum to name a few – bring solo exhibitions to the US for the first time to be shown at a 21c location as well as other museums

Always aiming to support artists in their communities, 21c began a partnership with Artadia in 2021. Artadia is a non-profit that supports artists through unrestricted financial awards; the partnership awards one artist living and working in the unique creative communities where 21c Museum Hotels are located, providing essential funding and recognition to artists at pivotal points in their careers, strengthening arts communities, and spurring new levels of career achievement.

“The partnership is a great way for us to support artists in all our communities, and because it moves from city to city, it kind of underscores this idea that 21c is one multi-venue museum,” Alice explains, “Artadia selects jurors from outside of the cities we’re in. That is so important because part of the opportunity for artists – and not just the winner, but the finalists too – is that these jurors do studio visits. It allows the artist to connect beyond their region, to a whole network of curators all over the country, and to a very active Artadia network.” Next year, the 21c Artadia Award will go to a recipient in Cincinnati.

With all the incredible work they are doing, it is no wonder 21c Museum Hotel has recently been awarded the 2023 AFAR Travel Vanguard, a list of seven companies changing the travel industry in bigger, better, and more human-focused ways. Recognised for ‘using art to spark conversations across the United States’, 21c has stayed true to its founding mission – the belief that art can be a vital part of daily life and a spark to ignite new energy and ideas – and remain devoted to inspiring curiosity and encouraging discovery through contemporary art.

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