I had the good fortune to catch up with 21c’s chief curator and museum director for the last ten years, Alice Gray Stites, when she was in Chicago installing the 2023 exhibition at 21c Chicago. We sat down in one of the hotel’s side galleries to discuss the concept, which I find endlessly fascinating. Stites recounted her path with the collection, which began in 2006 in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, then the epicenter of the collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, and the location of the first 21c Museum Hotel. Originally the couple envisioned the hotel and their collection as an enhancement to their hometown, but soon investors and developers came knocking and the concept grew and expanded to include other cities.
Collectively across all properties, 21c is one of the largest contemporary art museums in the United States and the only one in North America dedicated solely to collecting twenty-first century art. Programming for the nine (soon to be ten) hotel locations is Stite’s responsibility; the exhibitions for all locations are curated from Brown and Wilson’s extensive collection. In addition to those in Chicago and Louisville, there are 21c Museum Hotels in Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Nashville, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. Stite says “the hotels function as community centers in a time when we are nurturing community.” And because they are for-profit entities, entrance is always free and there is no board of trustees to answer to on content, giving Stites complete curatorial freedom.
Central to the current exhibition is the concept of ritual as it relates to cultures throughout the world. My take on the show after a full tour with erudite museum manager Juli Lowe is that it’s largely about humanity in all its guises, relationships between people and their varied histories. This particular exhibition has come from a stint in Cincinnati, with additional works on loan from Chicago-area artists. That is the core of the concept—a perfect blend of “work by known artists and emerging voices and visions,” Stite says. “People often ask me how do you curate for these different communities, do you think about audience, do you think about what the public is like in a certain city? Absolutely not. We are curating for the artwork and for the artists.”
Entering the hotel, next to the registration desk, we are greeted by a Carrie Mae Weems photograph, “May Flowers” glazed beneath a convex lens, in the manner of a Victorian photograph. In the image, three young Black girls portray a modern version of the Three Graces, in tondo, with only the central figure making eye contact from the dark circular frame.
Beth Moysés’ “Reconstructing Dreams,” combines a video in which survivors of domestic violence walk together in wedding-like gowns to the central square of Montevideo, Uruguay, then sit and embroider their lifelines on the palms of their gloves—a ritual which allows them to discard the past and wed themselves to new lives. In Angela Ellsworth’s “Eliza and Emily,” two “sister-wives” in the Mormon faith are tethered by the long ties of matching bonnets created from thousands of pearl corsage pins. The beauty of the ornate surface formed by the pearly spheres on the exterior of the bonnets belies the darkness and danger of the interiors, which are a labyrinth of needle-sharp points. In two large-scale photographs by Lalla Essaydi, the beautiful flow of Islamic script veils the images, telling the story of her Moroccan childhood, when women were not allowed to write the language.
Children play a large part in the exhibition, representing both innocence and the loss thereof. A stunning sculptural piece by Gehard Demetz shows two young children standing face to face, whitewash running over their heads and down their shoulders. Demetz believes that all youth must labor to cleanse themselves of familial and societal patterns and expectations. Gottfried Helnwein’s photoreal painted portrait is remarkable—delicately rendered, a beautiful child gazes directly at the viewer. His clothing appears military, and half of his face is in shadow. There is much to be imagined in this piece—the worry in his eyes references trauma and sorrow.
Marriage, too, is scrutinized and dissected by pieces in the exhibition. Asya Reznikov creates a bridal suitcase in which a video loop packs and repacks the bride for her new role as a wife. Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation, “Dinner for Two,” addresses the pitfalls of technology to relationships. A large wedding cake is on the long table, a tiny projected mouse devouring the cake from the inside as the two projected newlyweds carry on with their phones, oblivious. Their eyes never meet—intimacy doesn’t stand a chance against the proliferation of devices.
Citizen of the world Drew Tai, who has lived around the globe, portrays multiple cultures in his several images, most notably a diptych titled “Porcelain Promises,” in which an Asian couple in traditional wedding garb stare out of faces cracked like ancient ceramics, representing the vulnerability and fragility of love. Lucy Sparrow has painstakingly created two glass-fronted medicine chests, one for “him,” one for “her,“ in which everyday toiletries line the shelves—the catch is that they are all hand-stitched from fabric and embroidered. The contrast between the feminine and masculine products is telling, as is the fact that the male’s cabinet is installed above the female’s. The more you study them, the clearer the paradox becomes.
The model of 21c Museum Hotels is novel and munificent and offers a great deal to see and think about. Brown and Wilson’s collection writes a love letter to twenty-first-century artists. That each exhibition will be in residence for nearly a year, coupled with the fact that it is free and open to the public twenty-four-seven makes 21c a significant and generous gift to our city, housed inside a for-profit hotel.