When you think of Kentucky, world-class art isn’t one of the first few thoughts that typically comes to mind. Bourbon, a derby, white picket fences, and fresh, open scenery, yes, but believe it or not, there are some phenomenal things happening in the contemporary art world centered around the midwest and driven by Steve Wilson and his wife Laura Lee Brown, art collectors and co-founders of 21C Hotels, based in Louisville.

Steve and 21C invited Juxtapoz to come see it all for ourselves and what started as moderate skepticism, turned into a downright great time.

21C Hotels was started twelve years ago in Louisville as a way to support new growth in the downtown area where many historic buildings weren’t being utilized. As art collectors, Steve and Laura Lee wanted to share their collection with hotel guests and came up with the idea to place a museum experience within the footprint of the hotel.  As it stands, the museum at 21C is free and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and draws enormous attendance numbers from guests as well as the general public, whether they’re staying at the hotel or not. As a guest of the hotel, I can attest to seeing people working their way through the exhibitions from early in the morning until beyond midnight and everyone seemed consistently surprised that there was such high caliber artwork on display for free.

The entire hotel is covered with art and sculptures throughout the hallways and in every room. The attention to detail in every room shows through with unique pieces from the collection in every room on every floor. It was far different from a typical hotel experience and one where you seem to find something new every time you walk through.

Beyond Louisville, 21C has opened locations now in 7 additional locations including Cincinnati, OH, Bentonville, AR, Durham, NC, Lexington, KY, Oklahoma City, OK, Nashville, TN, and Kansas City, MO.

Outside of the hotel and downtown Louisville, our hosts had all sorts of additional plans for us and we tried to cram as much as possible into the few days we were there. Ever driven through a remote farm field in a sedan just to get a close-up view of a few hundred Buffalo? Right, me neither. Ever ridden on the back of a 2-person horse carriage while the driver races them through obstacles faster than you think is possible? Yeah, heart attack city.

All in all, it was a great trip and an amazing opportunity to see firsthand what’s happening in the art world that’s not on a coast. The 21C team is doing it right and honestly, if it were up to me, we’d take a road trip and drive to each hotel to check them out, looking for other cool and creative things happening along the way.

Special thanks to Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown for having us. Thank you to Mike Brady and Kenneth Tyler for making it all happen and for the amazing food and times.––Mike Stalter