Steve Wilson & Laura Lee Brown
Owners, 21C Museum Hotel
Call it a pioneer spirit of a different kind: such was the spirit from which the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky was born. For Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, building a museum-hotel in the city’s downtown district made perfect sense. Having been longtime art collectors and active in the area’s growing cultural scene, they had reasons to believe their concept would work.
After many trips to Europe, the couple could see how vital a city’s downtown center could be if its residents could work, live and play in it. “We saw how important art is to a city. We wanted that for our hometown,” Wilson says.
The museum is open 24 hours and hundreds of pieces of art are on view. Exhibitions are curated just as they would be in other museums. People who prefer a 90-room boutique hotel to a traditional museum are discovering it all the time.
The couple cites satisfaction when they see a guest laugh at an artwork’s humor or have an emotional reaction to a piece. “It’s an indescribable experience,” says Wilson.
Brown picks art that moves her emotionally. “I get so excited about a certain piece that I have to have it,” she says. Wilson, on the other hand, buys art based on similar themes or that offers the viewer a level of interactivity. Instead of superstars, the couple is attracted to contemporary artists on the cusp of attaining a level of importance in the 21st century—hence, the name for their hybrid project.
Another reason for the name is the couple’s belief in a 21st-century lifestyle that includes an awareness of the environment, attention to where fresh food and water comes from, and an interest in good design and art. Their philosophy is seen at Proof on Main, the hotel’s restaurant, which serves dishes created from the couple’s own farm-raised bison as well as their own garden.
21c’s museum-hotel concept has really caught on. It was voted the number one hotel in the US in the 2009 Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards, where hotels were judged on the quality of rooms, service, dining, location and overall design.
If nothing else, Wilson and Brown are satisfied that their efforts have made art more accessible to the public. A local film festival recently made the 21c the setting for its event, and other entrepreneurs have approached the couple, seeking advice on how to start a museum-hotel in other cities across the country.
“There’s a buzz. It’s an exciting place to be,” says Brown of the couple’s establishment.
Photos Courtesy of 21C Museum Hotel.