21c Director Previews the Museum Hotel’s New Durham Location

When Kentucky-based collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown opened the first 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville in 2006, few could have anticipated that such a novel idea would spread across the midwest like wildfire. In the past eight years, the couple has opened locations in Cincinnati and Bentonville, Arkansas (home of the Crystal Bridges Museum) — and they have quite a few more in the pipeline. Early next year a Deborah Berke-designed property is set to debut in Durham, North Carolina (other locations are in the works in Lexington, Oklahoma City, Nashville, and Kansas City). With the North Carolina opening just months away, we called up 21c director Alice Gray Stites to see what guests (and art lovers) can expect to see in Durham.

What preparations are you currently making for the Durham property?

We are in the midst of managing the site-specific omissions — these are at each of the 21c museums in a wide range of media that are integrated into the design of the spaces. And of course we are working on curating the inaugural exhibition. Like many of the aspects of this 21c opening, we wait to do a big reveal. But I can tell you that the inaugural exhibition in theme will be a refresher of the nature of what 21c does and what the art is all about, which is investigating the broad experience of the 21st century. It will be very international in its scope; it will include artists who are household names as well as emerging artists. There will be painting, sculpture, photography, video, interactive art, and probably some performance as well. In this case, the inaugural show is primarily drawn from the collection.

Are you engaging in partnerships with arts institutions in Durham?

We’re fortunate to have a very close relationship in place with the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. In 2012, 21c organized a traveling exhibition of Anthony Goicolea’s work that traveled to Raleigh, Savannah, and to 21c in Louisville. We have a good relationship with that museum and hope to continue that as well as with the Nasher Museum at Duke. There are a wide range of arts organizations in this area that include not only visual arts organizations and galleries, but also some wonderful performance arts organizations.

Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown have been called adventurous in their collecting style. Do you think that is an accurate characterization?

I think that is a fair thing to say. They are very passionate and very adventurous. They don’t buy just what other people buy. They really think for themselves and are willing to take risks. They’re not just buying blue chip art by recognizable names. They’re really wonderful collectors because they support artists and buy their work over a period of time. Their mission as collectors is a public one. The art has and is acquired with the purpose of being shown and shared with the public through exhibitions and installations at 21c Museums, which are always free to the public and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When I am working with them on acquisitions, the guiding principle is determining how new works can be exhibited in these public spaces, and how new works can be integrated into ongoing exhibits or how a new work will shape a future project. Laura Lee and Steve are adventurous collectors, yes, but equally they are also committed to a mission of broadening the audience for and deepening the appreciation for contemporary art. Laura Lee and Steve founded 21c because of a passionate belief in the power of innovative and thought-provoking art to transform communities.

— Ashton Cooper (ashton_cooper)

(Photo: Courtesy 21c)