Today on Perspectives, we had the opportunity to sit down with the Chief Curator and Museum Director at 21C Museum Hotel Louisville, Alice Gray Stites. Alice has worked at 21C for over five years, but before working as the museum’s director, she played a significant role in the early development of the company’s museum team.

Alice shares how 21C got their start in the Louisville community, the passion and drive behind making the unique combination of a hotel, restaurant, and museum a success, and how the company has grown and expanded over the last decade. She provides an inside glimpse of how they make it all work and blend throughout each of their national museum locations, as well as what she takes into consideration when she is preparing a museum exhibition at various museum locations.

“Curating a strong exhibition, to me, means one that is both physically accessible and articulate.” – Alice Gray Stites

In This Episode of our Perspectives Podcast:

  • Alice explains how the museum space is completely integrated into the hotel and restaurant spaces.
  • She shares how each of 21C’s restaurant locations are “chef-driven” and have their own unique names.
  • She explains why the museum doesn’t curate artwork for the audience, but instead, to honor the art, the artist’s intent, and to generate unique and interesting conversation among visitors.
  • She shares the type of literature you can expect to find within the museum and how many exhibitions take place at each location.

Connect with 21C Museum Hotels:

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21C Museum Hotel Louisville entrance

21c Museum Hotel Louisville Podcast Transcript:

In this week’s episode of Perspectives, brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, I’m speaking with Alice Gray Stites, the Chief Curator and Museum Director at 21c Museum Hotel. Alice, thank you for allowing me to visit the 21c today. Nice to meet you. How are you?

Alice: I’m fine. Nice to meet you, Greg. It’s so nice to have you come visit. We’re so glad that you’re interested in 21c Museum Hotel Louisville.

subscribe-via-itunesGreg: Well, I’ve been down a few times, but this is the first time I get to sit down with someone and actually have a conversation about … hopefully we can talk about almost all aspects of the museum and the hotel, but you’re primarily in charge of the art, as I understand it.

Alice: That’s absolutely right, but as you’ve seen, since you visited and anyone else who might visit us will gather, the museum spaces are completely integrated into the hotel and even restaurant spaces. We like to say there’s no velvet rope to get into our museum, and there’s no space in which you won’t discover a work of contemporary art.

Greg: How do you mentally compartmentalize what you’re in charge of and where someone else’s territory starts or ends, or is there even such a thing here?

Alice: Oh, well, absolutely. Although I’m learning the language of hospitality, I leave the running of the hotel to the professionals in hotel operations as no one would want me to be in charge in the kitchen or behind the bar. We have wonderful food and beverage teams who are in charge of concocting delicious meals and cocktails for our guests and visitors. My team is focused on the exhibitions and the cultural programming.

Greg: How many distinct modules or segments or teams are there for 21c? There are several locations, right? For right now, we’re talking about Louisville, so there’s the food and beverage, the restaurant?

Alice: Right, the restaurant team, the hotel team, and the museum team. The museum team operates a little differently in that in each of our locations … There are now six Museum Hotels in the US with number seven opening in Nashville in the late spring. All of the restaurants are chef-driven, have individual names. Here, of course, it’s Proof on Main.

But the museum, we like to think of as one multi-venue museum. All 18 museum team members work together closely, but we’re spread out over those six locations. This is headquarters, of course, Louisville, where we were founded 10 years ago by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, art collectors and preservationists who had the original vision for 21c, and we operate from here. The collection, the artwork, is housed and maintained and the exhibitions are curated from here and travel to other locations. Not every show will go to every location, and they will always change because each of the buildings is different.

Greg: And you’re in charge of all the hotels, all the museums?

Alice: Correct, because as I said, we like to think of it as one multi-venue museum.

Greg: How do you decide which show goes to which building? I assume they’re all very different physically. Do you match the particular show to the physical environment, or is it matched to the artistic vibe in that particular city? How do you sort of draw that up in your mind before … as you’re getting ready for the next one, how do you sort of draw that up?

Alice: Right. Well, there are lots of different factors that go into making those decisions about which exhibitions will … what are we curating for a particular 21c and how many locations it will travel to. As you note, space is a big determinant to build. Some buildings are more accommodating of larger works than others.

Our 21c in Oklahoma City is a former Model T Ford assembly plant. It has 14,000 square feet of exhibition space, and we have about half that at 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, which is a beautiful Beaux Arts building, so an exhibition would have to grow or shrink. From a curatorial perspective, the way that it works is that, when a new 21c opens, the inaugural exhibition will be a brand new show and a brand new theme.

The goal is for the theme of that exhibition, because in general they are group exhibitions, to express the character of the kind of contemporary art that you will see at 21c, the nature of what kind of place 21c is. It’s a hybrid place. It’s a public space. It’s also a place where people come and eat dinner and stay at the hotel. It’s a very complex and exciting and new kind of model, not just for the hospitality world, but for the museum world too. We also strive to select themes that reflect on current events and ideas. What is happening in the world? What are some issues that perhaps should be addressed?

Greg: How do you tie that in? Because some of the shows I assume will stay up for a while, so how do you, as a curator, try to stay current, knowing that a show is going to be up for a while? It must take some amount of time, probably longer than I would think, to put a show together. How do you stay current and then not miss the political or social theme that you’re trying to hit?

21C Museum Hotel lobby art - Louisville


Alice: Right. Well, fortunately, we are dealing with the art of today, so it’s 21st century. It’s all been made since 2000 or later. Artists tend to think farther ahead than the rest of us. The kinds of images that they are creating often foreshadow what happens in the world, either in the immediate or even the near future.

I’ve never been one to worry that an exhibition like, “Oh, that’s so about yesterday,” but I’ll give you one example. We had an exhibition that traveled a couple of years ago called Transporting Transformation. This was art mostly by Cuban artists or about Cuba. In December, I believe it was December 2014, President Obama announced that he would be seeking to normalize some aspects of diplomatic relations with the island. We were about to move that exhibition from one location to the next.

We quickly gathered a team and said, “You know, now this will resonate differently,” because the exhibition had been very much about both the desire and the constraints of being restricted on an island and breeding this kind of fertile ground for artistic expression, but at the same time, the sense of isolation and disconnection from family, from the Cuban diaspora who were able to leave in decades past. We shifted the emphasis to looking forward to a time of change, and maybe wrote about the works a little differently, selected some different pieces for the show. We try to stay current in that way.

We have another exhibition that’s been traveling. It’s currently on view at 21c Lexington called Hybridity: The Supernatural. That was an exhibition that opened Bentonville 21c in 2013 as Hybridity: The New Frontier. As time passed, the exhibition, which explores the evolution of species and spaces indoors and out in the 21st century, began leaning away from hybrid creatures into this notion of hybrid space, how our concept of nature is now informed by technology, by a combination of the organic and the artificial.

There were more and more … Over these past two years, we’ve been reading a lot more, hearing a lot more, about this notion of the Anthropocene, about how our geologic era is going to be called the Anthropocene, the earth as interfered with by human activity. The exhibition shifted much more toward how are contemporary artists envisioning notions of landscape. Thus, it became the Supernatural.

Greg: Wow. Okay, so there is sometimes a connection or interference between the shows that have already been planned or are already up, and as things change to become even more relevant.

Alice: Absolutely. We like to say that we do not copy-paste. We copy-morph.

Greg: That’s very nice. Who’s your audience? When you put a show together, when you curate a show, obviously the artists are going to be concerned about how the show’s put together. Do you sort of wander through some of these spaces and listen to people off the street and their reaction? Is it how you look at the show when it’s put together or other professionals look at the show? Who’s your audience?

Alice: Well, we don’t know all the time who our audience is. We’re so fortunate to have a really broad-ranging audience now in six different cities. The demographics vary tremendously because we have people coming in off of the street, our local communities, our local schools, universities, people who are interested in the arts, artists of course in every community. Then we have business people who are staying with us in all of these different locations. We have people who are here on vacation. We have people who are coming to 21c to host a retreat, a wedding, a family reunion. It’s really broad-ranging, but to answer what I think is your question, is we don’t curate for the audience because it’s too difficult to guess or to cater to what we might think people’s tastes could be.

Again, we’re talking about contemporary art. Much of the work, in terms of the imagery it’s putting forth, in terms of the materials that artists are using today, is very new and won’t be familiar enough to people to have made a kind of judgment before they’ve seen it. Primarily for my team, what we are trying to do is honor the art, the intent of the artist, and to put together exhibitions in which artworks generate interesting conversations by dint of their proximity to one another or in opposition to one another.

Curating a strong exhibition means one that is to me both physically accessible, because you can come see our shows any time of day or night and we never charge, but also articulate, making an idea articulate.
You and I are sitting in a room full of portraits right now, and those range from black and white portraits by South African artist Zanele Muholi, to the beautiful color photographs by Pierre Gonnord that look very much inspired by the Italian Renaissance painters like Caravaggio, to a video animation by Ori Gersht that is actually of a coin, an ancient Greek coin, that was a first example of a portrait of royalty being used to denote currency. You’ll see faces throughout this room, but they range widely. The idea is to give you a sense of the breadth of what contemporary portraiture looks like, so hopefully that is both … that’s kind of the notion of, can we be as articulate as we can about a strong idea and also install the artwork in a way that truly expresses the vision of the artist?

Greg: Then it sounds like you have a good idea going into it if … you already know if you’ve hit your mark, right, like this is what I want it to be, and then it’s up to me to come through, or the audience, and experience it the way I’m going to experience it. Do you try to direct that? Are there fact sheets or interpretation sheets? Or do you just like to let people sort of come through and whatever they bring to the art and the exhibit is going to be?

Alice: Whatever you bring to the art or the exhibit is valid and interesting, and we love to hear responses. Now that said, there’s a lot of information available and a big part of curating an exhibition is the research and the writing, and thinking through what the connections are amongst the works and articulating in written and spoken form what those are. There are labels on the walls. There are printed brochures that are available. We also offer docent tours twice a week to the public if you want to come and take a tour with a member of the museum staff and hear more in depth and also ask questions and share your responses.

Greg: How long have you been the curator?

Alice: I have been Chief Curator for a little over five years now.

Greg: Can we go all the way back to the beginning, the founding of the first 21c, the Louisville 21c? I’m sure you’ve heard this story many times, but it seems so … for Louisvillians now, it’s a part of our city, right? It all seems normal that there’s a, I don’t know what we call it, an interactive museum-hotel-restaurant space, but this had to have seemed kind of a bizarre concept back then. Can you sort of explain the original thinking and how cutting-edge it was 10, 11 years ago?

Alice: Oh, absolutely. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the original exhibitions and installations. I was then working as an independent curator, but was very fortunate that 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson asked if I would help curate the inaugural exhibitions here. I saw the buildings as they were being renovated, as they were commissioning some of the big site-specific projects, and putting together the first show. It was a lot quieter down here on the corner of 7th and Main when 21c opened in 2006. It seemed as if the public in Louisville embraced 21c right away.

One important thing that the public did was actually to select and adopt the red penguins as the ambassadors of 21c. We had put those in the inaugural exhibition. The penguins were just a series, a group, an addition to artwork that was part of the show, but when we went to change the exhibition, there was a real outcry from the public. No, the penguins can’t leave the building, so the penguins not only stayed, but then Steve Wilson was able to get an agreement with the Cracking Art Group, who were the European artists who make these red penguins, that they would only make penguins for future 21cs. Now each 21c has a different color penguin.

21C Museum Hotel Louisville Main Street picture


Greg: Oh, wonderful. Quick aside, I told my daughter I was coming down here to record a podcast episode with you. She said, “On your way out, will you grab a red penguin out of the gift shop?” She wants it for her college dorm.

Alice: Nice. I’m happy to hear that. I’m glad that the small ceramic penguins are popular, because the artwork penguins are homebodies and they don’t like to leave the building.

Greg: I bet. Yeah. All right. I interrupted, but we were going to go and touch on sort of that whole concept…

Alice: Yeah, so the history is that our founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson were passionate about collecting contemporary art, aware of what a powerful impact living with the art of today had on their lives, and wanting to share more of that with the public. They also cared very much about historic preservation. No, actually, preservation of both the history and of farmland. They live on a farm outside of Louisville.

In 2005, talking about investing and revitalizing the urban core was new language. It’s not today, but I just mention that as another example of how visionary this decision was. They didn’t want to open a private museum that would depend upon tax dollars or admission tickets or the generosity of other donors in the future, so they had a study done about what kind of business would be good for Louisville, Kentucky. The answer was a boutique hotel. That’s how 21c was born. It turned out to be a terrific marriage and a great space in which to share more art with the public.

There was some skepticism in the art world or in the traditional museum world about whether other institutions would loan works of art to our exhibitions, and whether the art would be safe, and whether the exhibitions would be appropriately challenging and serious as well as accessible. I think all of those concerns have dissipated because of the strength of the program that 21c has built.

Greg: It seems like it must be very successful because it’s expanding and again just part of the city. I have friends who come in town, and it’s just sort of one of those places that they feel like they have to go see. Even if they don’t stay here for the evening, even if they don’t get a hotel room, they either have to go to the restaurant or they have to go to the museum, or they have to walk through. They definitely have to hit the bathroom, right? Everyone has to hit the bathroom.

Alice: Yeah. The men’s room on the first floor-

Greg: Absolutely.

Alice: … is a must-see, must-stop. That’s great news. That’s what we want the community to feel like. Everyone is welcome here, whether you’re visiting or whether you live here. It’s very gratifying that 21c has become the place that people must come and see, or a place that when people are moving here from out of town, feel like, “Wow, I feel at home here,” or, “I feel like I’m in a bigger city here,” that it adds to people’s notion of what a really interesting place Louisville is to live and that it is possible here to do things that are unconventional.

The original idea from Steve and Laura Lee was that they wanted to invest in their hometown and really participate in revitalizing the downtown of Louisville. There was no plan to be in other cities originally. It was based on the success of Louisville that developers, investors, partners from other cities came forward and said, “We’d love to see this happen in our hometown too.”

Greg: Do you think it could have started in another city besides Louisville? Because I’m sure that they started it here because they were here. That’s my assumption. Is there something about Louisville, or is it simply because it was their hometown? Is that an impossible question? Who knows?

Alice: Probably an impossible question, but as a naturalized citizen of Louisville, Kentucky, originally from New York, been here for over 20 years, I would say it had a better … this seed of vision had a better chance of germinating in Louisville than many other cities. There’s such a quality of creative thinking and a why not, why not try it, that happens here that I’m not sure … but it is. You would be amazed. There are other cities where we are now, like Cincinnati and Durham, that also have really rich and fascinating creative communities, great university towns. Lexington has been amazing.

Greg: Each one has to get a little bit easier, right? Because now you have three, four, or five, six behind you, not behind you, but that have already been set up and established. The concept, it’s its own category now, right? Aren’t hotels saying that this is a separate category and they’re giving awards in this category? There is a success behind it that Louisville, that you guys put together. It’s kind of cool.

Alice: It is nice to be creating a new model. It’s very exciting. It’s exhilarating. It seems to be working. There are other hotels that are now beginning to use art in an attempt to create a sense of place and authenticity, but that’s not quite the same thing as a … We’re the only museum hotel where it’s a full scale program of exhibitions and events and presentations and lectures and things like that. We’re going to keep continuing to look for ways to stay at that edge of innovation.

But getting easier in some ways, in terms of figuring out logistics and organization, sure, but the challenges are all different. Each city is different. Each building is different. Each time, we want to come up with new projects, new kinds of art, new kinds of experiences, but those are exciting challenges to have. I guess you don’t have to … We’re no longer asking the question, “Oh gosh. Will anybody come? Will anybody like it?” They do, but you also have to keep working hard to get the word out.

From my perspective on the museum team’s job is to keep looking for collaborative partners. We want to work really well with other museums, with other arts organizations, with universities, with anybody who … here we work with IdeaFestival, for example, looking for those partnerships that we can do things with to make sure that we’re contributing to the vibrancy of the arts in each of those cities, and that’s going to be different each time.

Greg: Do you have a new show or a next show that you want to tease us with, or what’s coming up next? How long do these shows stay on the walls?

Alice: Oh, it varies.

Greg: I understand they’re not all on the walls, so you got come down and look there…

Alice: That’s right. Sometimes they’re on the floor.

Greg: That’s right.

Alice: Right. It varies. I would like to invite everyone to come and see if you haven’t the exhibition that opened about six weeks ago in the lobby gallery here at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, The Future is Female. We’re really excited about that exhibition, and there have been tremendously positive response to it. There are artists from a number of different countries, South Africa, India, Sweden… They are really exploring both the legacy of the feminist art movement that was born in the ’70s as expressed through the art of today, but there’s a lot of interesting intersection of exploring the personal experience and addressing ecological disaster and socioeconomic issues and issues around identity.

We have artists, three artists, local artists, who are participating in the exhibition, Gaela Erwin, Tiffany Carbonneau, and Kathleen Olliges, who have works in the show. They’re mixed together with internationally-known artists like Jenny Holzer and Carrie Mae Weems, E.V. Day, Nandipha Mntambo. The video lounge has a film by Vibha Galhotra called Manthan that takes you on a mesmerizing but disturbing journey into a very polluted part of the Ganges.

There’s another lovely work by her that’s a woven map of this part of the city and the river banks. It’s made of crystal beads and wire. This kind of combination of everyday materials and the handcrafted is very much a legacy of the feminist art of 1970s, which is also reflected in these explorations of the intersections of identity and social justice issues. I think there’s a lot that will resonate right now and start a lot of conversations.

Proof On Main art display in 21C Museum Hotel Louisville

If you haven’t visited Proof on Main, as part of our tenth anniversary last year, instead of redoing, updating the restaurant, 21c commissioned Fallen Fruit who are an artist duo from California, David Burns and Austin Young, to take over all of the spaces in Proof on Main, which they turned into a four-part, site-specific exhibition that explores a wide variety of aspects of the history of the community, the history of Louisville, of Kentucky, of 21c’s founders.

It combines custom-designed wallpaper with found and created photography, sculptures, found elements, new lighting from architectural salvage, all of which is vibrant and beautiful and reflects really interesting aspects of our community’s past and present and future in an installation called The Practices of Everyday Life. These spaces are also open to the public. Once a month, we will do a Plus Lunch tour there. It’s going to be here for a couple of years, but that’s something you really don’t want to miss. I think it’s also a really novel treatment of restaurant space as exhibition space.

Greg: In your mind, how many separate exhibition spaces are here at the Louisville 21c?

Alice: Well, we currently have on view four separate exhibitions. We have The Practices of Everyday Life in the restaurant. We have The Future is Female in the lobby. We have A Global Gathering in the atrium and the lower level galleries where we are now, which is very much a look at how the collection, the permanent collection of 21c, has grown in the last decade, focusing on three different topics, portraiture and identity, power and politics, the evolution and degradation of the environment.

Then finally for a little while longer, we have a lovely show on printmaking, contemporary prints, that was curated by Susanna Crum who is a professor at Indiana University Southeast. She was instrumental along with professors from U of L in organizing a very big print conference here in the region, and we invited her to curate an exhibition from 21c’s collection of prints. That’s in the back, Gallery 4. We are always trying to offer a variety of things to see. I would say in each location, there are, if you can count, kind of three or four different exhibitions all at the same time.

In 21c Cincinnati and Lexington, if listeners can get there, if you’d like to see the work of local artists, ask to be shown the guest room floors. In all of the other buildings, we do a program called Elevate at 21c, we never wanted to open the doors without having artwork from the community on view. Easy to do in Louisville. We’ve been here. The collection includes a lot of artists from Louisville. There’s almost always something included from a local artist. But when we’re in new cities, we decided to dedicate exhibition space on each of the guest room floors to rotating, changing exhibitions, works on loan, from artists in those cities, so exposing their work to people who are staying at the hotel, and exposing our overnight visitors to getting a real sense of place through the creative output of the artists who live there.

Greg: Wow. Okay, so it sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate in each location times the number of locations you have, so a lot going on.

Alice: A lot going on. We’ve got a great team.

subscribe-via-stitcherGreg: If someone wants to follow you online, are there a couple places they can pay attention? Are you guys on … Does each place have its own Facebook page? How does that work?

Alice: No. Actually it’s all 21c.

Greg: Okay.

Alice: You can follow 21c on Facebook. Proof on Main has its own Instagram, but 21c Hotels, follow us @21cHotels on Instagram and Facebook, individual … @21cLouisville for Twitter. You can also go on our website,, and sign up to get our newsletters. You can sign up for one or more depending on what your interests are.

Greg: Wonderful. Alice, thanks so much for having me down today. I really appreciate it.

Alice: It’s a pleasure. Thank you and come back soon.