Louisville's Art of Hospitality

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Kenneth Hayden

Making an exhibition of itself: The lobby at 21C

As the home of the Kentucky Derby, America's greatest horse race, the city of Louisville has developed a tradition of hospitality ranging from white-glove genteel for the mint-julep set to gutbucket honky-tonk for the infield mob. Yet the city's most intriguing hotel has built its off-track winning formula around a thoroughbred collection of contemporary art. (See 10 things to do in New York City.)

The 21C Museum Hotel, www.21cmuseumhotel.com, is located between one museum devoted to native son Muhammad Ali and another to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat. 21C has made Louisville a world-class destination not just for horse-racing fans on the first Saturday in May but also for art aficionados all year round. Along the roofline of the late 18th century former tobacco warehouse is a row of winsome gargoyles in the form of 4-ft. (1.2 m) red-plastic penguins by the Italian collective Cracking Art. Inside, you don't have to check in to get a vast sampling of new art: the 9,000-sq.-ft. (836 sq m) exhibition space is free, open 24/7 and stuffed with wonders such as Text Rain, an installation by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, where visitors can watch letters descend onto full-size video images of themselves and settle into lines of poetry. (See pictures of New York.)

Most of the works are from the ever-expanding collection of owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, a scion of Brown-Forman Corp., which started bottling Kentucky bourbon and is now one of the world's biggest liquor conglomerates. "The owners' mission is to make art accessible," says William Morrow, the museum's curator. "It's amazing how many audiences there are for a project like this." Temporary exhibits change about every six months; now running (through June) is Constant World, an installation by Brooklyn-based artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, which combines sculpture, electronics and video for a culturally savvy discourse on the thin line between utopia and dystopia. Of course, you could ignore all that and just go up to your room; there are 90 of them, stocked with customized iPods, specially distilled bourbon and sterling-silver mint-julep cups. But even there you'll be surrounded by original art. That's the point of 21C.

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