Unlike many big-shot developers, Kentucky-based philanthropists, art collectors, and husband-and-wife team Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson sought only to break even when they founded boutique hotel group 21C Museum Hotels and opened their first property in Louisville in 2006. Perhaps that's because they weren't sure if their simple-yet-groundbreaking idea to merge provocative, contemporary art with sleek accommodations and a buzzy restaurant would be feasible. It didn't take long for locals, jet setters, and art buffs (plus critics—21C was voted Best Hotel in the South, among other accolades) to take notice. The formula at Louisville was so successful that properties opened in Cincinnati, Ohio (2012), and Bentonville, Arkansas (2013); with two more locations (Lexington, Kentucky and Durham, North Carolina) in the pipeline.
21C is the only museum in the country that's devoted to 21st-century art, free of admission, and open to the public 24 hours a day. Here's how it works: Revenue made by the hotel, restaurant, and spa fund the museum, eliminating the need for donors or philanthropists (unlike most non-profit museums) and allowing the art to be curated and executed at an exceptionally high level. In response to those who've questioned how a museum could be linked, physically and figuratively, to a profit-generating hotel and restaurant, Alice Gray Stites, 21C's chief curator and director of art programming says, "We have a sincere belief in the power of art. It can be an integral part of the economy, and connect people to the city, and to the world."
The art isn't limited to the museum walls. Another thing that sets 21C apart is its commitment to placing art everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of spots, in order to catch the viewer off-guard and to elicit an honest, unfiltered response. As you walk up the steps to the spa at the Cincinnati location, for example, you'll encounter "Fields of Grass," by artist Ryan Wolfe (above). The mixed-media piece pulls atmospheric data to set the "blades" of grass in motion. Those needing a little comedic relief—or push—during their next workout at the fitness center at the Bentonville location can glance up at Virginie Barré's "Fat Bat" (below), an obese caricature of Batman. In addition, each museum's exhibitions rotate every six months, while every restaurant's art is updated annually (there are site-specific pieces at each location as well). Whether you're visiting the museum, staying at the hotel, having dinner or a spa treatment, you cannot predict how people will respond to art." says Stites. "Exposure to art can deeply affect people's lives. And you cannot put a value on that."