Eye of the Beholders

Eye of the Beholders

A boutique hotel with a well-curated foundation

Words by Ashley Hurst
Photos by Jessie Kriech-Higdon

It all started with the house. The farmhouse outside Louisville, Kentucky, that Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown call home had stood vacant for 13 years. For Laura Lee’s birthday, Steve fixed up one room as a romantic gesture. There was no power and the chimney was rotted off, but Laura Lee was in seventh heaven. “There were so many frogs croaking, and it put me right to sleep,” she recalls with a soft smile on her face. Steve jokingly interjects, “They sounded like pigs!” 

Steve and Laura Lee had bonded over their mutual interests in land preservation, historic preservation, food, dance, and art—“all the good stuff,” as Laura Lee calls it. She had been an art collector from childhood, learning from her mother, and Steve had been an art student before pursuing a career in politics. Together they continued building a contemporary art collection that they displayed in their home. 

William Seal, whom Steve describes as “a force in historic preservation,” had consulted on the restoration of their 1800s farmhouse. He designed a replacement front porch, educated them on the history of the home, and encouraged them to fill it with period furnishings. Imagine his surprise when they chose a handful of period pieces, and then went on to fill the home with contemporary art and furnishings!

As their collection grew, they began changing out the pieces displayed in the home somewhat regularly, and Steve says friends would frequently visit to “see the weird things.” Steve and Laura Lee love sharing their collection and educating their friends on the contemporary art they collect from all over the world.  

Word spread, and eventually they were being contacted by tour groups. “The house became more of a museum,” Steve explains. 

At the same time, downtown Louisville was flailing. Steve and Laura Lee had a desire to see the downtown area revived and to help the local economy, which they paired with their desire to share their growing art collection and broaden the community’s understanding of contemporary art. This was the seed that grew into 21c Museum Hotels.

They found five buildings on a corner in downtown Louisville they thought would be ideal, four of which were already empty. They faced a lot of opposition, but they were determined to see it through. 

“We didn’t originally plan for a hotel,” Laura Lee explains. “But then we found out apartments or condos wouldn’t work. We needed 80 rooms to make this work.” 

“It’s easy to break rules when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Steve adds. 

After the hotel was up and running, others began to approach Steve and Laura Lee, wanting their help to replicate the only museum hotel. There are other hotels that display art, but none that function as an actual museum.

Each of the now nine 21c Museum Hotels provides “radical accessibility” to contemporary art. The first two floors of each of the hotels house an exhibit that is free and open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Visitors will find an introduction to and explanation of the exhibit’s theme, and descriptions beside each piece of art. A variety of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and digital art make up each exhibit, and the exhibits rotate between the hotels. Steve and Laura Lee continue to travel the world visiting studios, private collections, galleries, and art festivals, always on the lookout for the next piece to add to their collection. 

“Art culture is so different around the world,” Laura Lee explains. “It reflects the issues specific to them. Art in Cuba is all about freedom, democracy, and escaping the island. It’s all boats and planes. But the message also has to be disguised because it’s all inspected, so there’s also this challenge of encoding the message.”

Each exhibit is meant to be a learning experience, and the exhibit is spread through every room over the first two floors. Meeting rooms are available for rental, but when not in use visitors will find every door open. 

“It can be a struggle to keep the art provocative when the sales team and event planners don’t necessarily understand it,” Steve says. “But we never take art down to please a client.” He laughs as he begins telling a story of a wedding reception taking place in the hotel. The art on exhibit in the room included bare male genitalia. Steve laughs before he can finish his story. “Someone, I’d guess the mother of the bride, had snuck into the room and added decorative topiaries that perfectly covered the ‘offensive’ parts!” He is almost doubled over laughing, and Laura Lee demurely covers her mouth as she finally gives up trying to keep a straight face. 

We all pull ourselves back together and Steve goes on. “Some of the art is—well, we have some friends and family who don’t like some of it, like my life clock.” Displayed in the hotel restaurant, Steve’s life clock is a black rectangular clock counting down to “the end of Steve’s life” in red numbers. “For me, though, it’s just a reminder that life is short, and we have to make every day count.”

The life clock is part of an exhibit in the private dining room that displays memorabilia and art from Laura Lee’s life, including a few paintings she painted herself, along the left side of the room, and memorabilia and art from Steve’s life on the right. 

Originally planning to change out the art and decor in the restaurant yearly, they ended up so impressed with the current design that they've left it as-is for three years now. The wallpaper pattern was created from digital photographs of flowers taken at Steve’s and Laura Lee’s farm, and a few of the murals include employees from the restaurant. 

The most iconic art associated with the hotels, however, has to be the child-sized penguin statues found all over each property. Originally discovered on a trip to Venice, where they were part of an art display of 10,000 penguins covering the city, Steve negotiated to purchase 10 percent of the penguins. The statues were placed around the museum and in the hallways of the hotel, and employees would move them around. The penguin became so iconic that the City of Louisville asked to use it in its travel advertising. Steve negotiated with the original artist to purchase the rights to the penguin, and now each 21c Museum Hotel has penguin statues in its own, location-specific color. 

21c Museum Hotels can be found in Louisville, Kentucky; Lexington, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; Durham, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Bentonville, Arkansas; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Kansas City, Missouri. Visit 21cmuseumhotels.com to plan your visit.