PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM HOYING • Here: Pepe López’s Guapísimas
Steve Wilson doesn’t look like your average hotelier. He’s wearing a suit, sure, but it’s a tropical-print green Etro, paired with bright red glasses. As he and his wife, Laura Lee Brown (also cheekily stylish in a pink and green Etro jacket), pose in the rooftop suite at the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, the photographer instructs them to look regal. “Don’t tell him that,” Brown responds. “He’ll do everything he can to make it unregal.”
That there’s a touch of irreverence around this septuagenarian couple comes as little surprise. After all, they’re the creators of the trendsetting 21c brand, which was born when this hotel took over five downtown Louisville warehouses in 2006. The opening was not a quiet one: The owners installed artist Serkan Özkaya’s 30-foot-tall golden recreation of Michelangelo’s David on the street corner out front.
“When we first did this we had no dream of doing more than one,” Wilson tells me after the photo shoot, as we sit in the hotel’s restaurant, Proof on Main. “People didn’t think it was going to work.”
While many boutique hotels tout their art collections, for 21c art is the raison d’être. The brand’s nine properties—the newest, in Chicago, opens this year—collectively comprise America’s largest museum dedicated solely to 21st-century works (hence the name). The collection, which rotates through the hotels, includes works by such world-renowned artists as Kara Walker and Chuck Close. Before Chicago, the hotels were all in second-tier Midwestern and Southern cities, such as Kansas City, Missouri, and Durham, North Carolina. When I posit that Wilson and Brown are evangelists for art in Middle America, Wilson agrees. “The heartland is the heart of our business,” he says, “and many of these cities don’t have access to art and don’t have great hotels.”
Perhaps most representative of this democratizing goal are the movable, three-foot-tall plastic penguins (in a different color for each property), made by the Italian collective Cracking Art. Visitors may find the birds inside an elevator or at their table in the restaurant. “They’re symbolic, in a way, of what we wanted to do,” Wilson says. “They’re touchable. People engage with them.” So much so that at least one guest has made off with one. “We got a letter written as if it was a penguin writing home, with a Polaroid of him on the beach,” Wilson recalls.
“Then we got a letter in French saying, ‘I’m on a train now,’” Brown adds. “We got correspondence from him three times, but then we didn’t hear from him anymore.”
While Wilson and Brown themselves have seen much of the world, both are proud Kentuckians—albeit from rather different backgrounds. Brown’s great-grandfather founded the Brown-Forman Distillery in 1870, and she grew up on a horse farm outside Louisville. (She refers to her father as a “gentleman farmer.”) She got her love of art from her mother, who was a patron of Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. “She invited me to go on [acquisition] trips to New York,” Brown says, “so I’ve been looking at art for 45 years.”
Wilson grew up near Paducah, the oldest child of a “dirt farmer” who told him that “art was worthless.” Nevertheless, he studied art at Murray State University. He ended up working for several Kentucky governors and later for a public relations firm. He met Brown through mutual friends, and their connection was instant. “There was this combination of our appreciation for land or farming and our love of art and travel,” Wilson remembers.
They married in 1993, and Wilson started joining Brown on her trips for the Speed Museum, while they also grew their own collection. The idea for 21c came as a response to suburban development around Louisville. “There was a lot of discussion about urban sprawl and city centers,” Wilson says. “Why leave these buildings vacant and build a new suburb? There must be a way to revitalize, make it a more interesting place for people to live and play as well as work.”
The first museum-hotel was a hit, and it was followed by 21c Cincinnati in 2012 and the rest in quick succession. The brand has grown to the point that in 2018 Wilson and Brown sold majority ownership to the French company Accor Hotels.
So what will 21c look like as we get deeper into its eponymous century? “We’re going to bigger cities,” Wilson says. “I would love to see 21c’s in Europe. I’m less involved with operations, but finding and designing new locations is something I really love to do.”