Review by Richard Cummings
Let me begin by saying that it wasn't my intention to review 21c. But after experiencing 21c Museum Hotel, I just can't help myself.
You wouldn't think that Northwest Arkansas would be a place where one could experience world-class contemporary art, let alone find a chic, hip, contemporary hotel. But ever since the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in November 2011, it is evident that both realities are not only possible but are redefining cultural expectations for the region. And this is thanks to the philanthropy and vision of Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. So in Bentonville, Arkansas, the birthplace of Walmart—with all of its cultural implications—lies a world-class museum with a great collection of American artists.
My recent trip to Crystal Bridges was my second to the museum. I teach art at College of the Ozarks in southwest Missouri about an hour-and-a-half drive from Crystal Bridges. Last fall we as a department took approximately fifty art majors to visit the museum. We were amazed at the collection, the architecture (designed by architect Moshe Safdie of Boston, Massachusetts), and the beautiful grounds and pathways that surrounded the museum.
Two months prior to this initial trip, I met two visitors in Boger Gallery, the art gallery that I direct at College of the Ozarks. They had flown into the area from New York just to visit Crystal Bridges Museum and had driven north to visit the college. What they had to say about their experience at the museum was extremely positive, and I was amazed that they had flown in specifically to visit it. After all, you fly to New York, L.A., or Chicago to see art. You don't make special trips to northwest Arkansas to see art, right?
At least not until now. After having now visited Crystal Bridges twice, I am doubly convinced that the museum and its collection are worthy of a special trip from great distance. And that made room for another art gem in the unlikely location of Bentonville, Arkansas: the 21c Museum Hotel.
The brainchild of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the first 21c Museum Hotel opened in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006. Both lovers and collectors of contemporary art, they came up with an idea to harmoniously meld commerce and art, to provide an accessible venue for more people to be exposed to contemporary art. The hope was for the art to spark conversations and open up the imaginations of everyday individuals, and because the art exhibited was to be made by contemporary artists, the name 21c was a perfect fit.
I was invited by 21c Museum Manager Dayton Castleman—a tremendous artist himself—to visit 21c when I next came down to Bentonville to visit Crystal Bridges. I wasn't sure what to expect. Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible experience.
The Museum part of "Museum Hotel" is completely accurate and cannot be overemphasized. 21c is not a hotel with some chic art used to enhance the decor and vibe of the hotel lobby. It is a first class contemporary art museum with thousands of square feet of exhibition space and world-class permanent and temporary exhibitions. Yet it all flows so seamlessly into the stylish, contemporary hotel that it is difficult to separate one from the other. The 21c experience is an organic unity of art, design, and hospitality. It is a whole in itself. The experience begins as you approach the building, where the architecture and exterior works hint at what’s inside and build anticipation. The 21c experience continues as you enter the lobby and pass through the exhibition spaces; it surrounds you as you pause before Flow 5.0, an interactive fan sculpture placed outside the elevators. It continues down the corridors and halls, which are filled with amazing art and welcoming green penguins, and finally, the 21c welcomes you as you enter your superbly appointed room, which is bedecked with original works of art.
Art surrounds and penetrates 21c. Everywhere there is something to look at, wonder at, muse over, or chuckle about. My favorite piece at 21c Museum Hotel is “Fat Bat,” by Virginie Barré. It is cheeky on its own, but in the context of the fitness center, the bloated, obese Batman character lends an air of irony to this sacred arena for sculpting abs and removing flab. Instead of depicting an actual superhero, perhaps a mirror is being held up for patrons to see a psychological portrait of a particular American reality.
Everything about the 21c experience was amazing—and it would be amazing for the non-art-lover as well. If you are ever in Bentonville, Arkansas, to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—or even the Walmart Visitors Museum—take some time to visit 21c Museum Hotel. Even if you don’t stay the night, you don’t need a reservation to go inside and soak it all in.
Richard Cummings first became associated with Ruminate when his assemblage work appeared in Issue 19: Sustaining in March of 2011. He is easily distracted and enjoys sparkly things, things that move, and things with sugar. Still, Mr. Cummings finds time to write about art and time to be a professional artist, designer, and educator. He is an associate professor of art at College of the Ozarks and is also the director of the college's Boger Gallery.
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