21c: Where art museum, lodging merge

My mind and body are weary from rising at 3:15 a.m. to catch the first flight out of Madison, but the aerial hops are quick, and I am thankful my hotel room is ready by 11 a.m.

On goes the television remote, force of habit. The default channel is not a harsh news outlet or annoying hotel hype. What I see is a mix of slow-floating fruits and vegetables – a row of cherries here, pattypan squash or broccoflower there – in a not-so-still-life arrangement that slowly changes in composition, again and again and again.

Several minutes pass before the ballet of fresh produce disappears. On comes an empty, museum-like lobby and in comes the rain, a steady shower that begins filling the room’s floor like a slow-rising bathtub. The mesmerizing mix of ripples and trickles eventually resembles a steamy sauna and would lull me to sleep if I let it.

On and on it goes, an eclectic mix of odd and extraordinary scenes. Sure-footed mules carry cargo along narrow mountain trails. A vintage auto is covered with 30,000 coins. A tree is designed to bear 40 kinds of fruit. Sometimes the artists behind the concepts talk about their intention or obsession.

The city? Cincinnati. The setting? Downtown, in the 21c Museum Hotel, a property devoted to contemporary works of the creative soul. That’s 21c as in “21st century.”

A hotel with original art is not new, but this level of immersion is. You can stay at these art-filled hotels or simply visit, 24/7, for free gallery gawking.

Steve Wilson and wife Laura Lee Brown, of the large and longtime Brown-Forman liquor empire, opened their first 21c hotel in renovated tobacco and bourbon warehouses in Louisville in 2006, sharing part of their private art collection.

They liked the results and response, so they proceeded to open 21c hotels elsewhere, buying enough art to furnish multiple galleries at each property, enough to change out from one hotel to another every nine to 12 months. They favor the works of emerging artists, don’t worry about family-friendly content, and consider art as a driver of economic revitalization.

“We are primarily a museum,” Wilson says. “We design for art to be the statement” at a 21c hotel. He acknowledges that other hotels contain original art, but “when art doesn’t change in a hotel, it’s a decoration,” not an art museum.

The unofficial 21c mascot is a penguin statue that shows up in big and petite sizes. Each hotel has a different penguin color. The statues pop up on buffet tables, in conference rooms, near the restaurant hostess station and are a popular prop for you-were-there photos.

Look for 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville; Cincinnati; Bentonville, Ark.; Durham, N.C.; Kansas City; Lexington, Ky.; Nashville and Oklahoma City. Ask about guided docent tours, or just stop by to ogle art on your own, for free.

Additional locations are under development in Chicago, Des Moines and St. Louis. Although Wilson and Brown still buy the art, majority owner of hotels is AccorHotels, based in France. 21cmuseumhotels.com

Downtown Milwaukee gains an art hotel in June. The 219-room Saint Kate Arts Hotel, a former InterContinental, is loosely named after St. Catherine, patron saint of artists, and will contain both static (gallery) and performing arts (black box theater) spaces.

A new branch of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, will be at the Saint Kate, which is a Marcus hotel. The gallery is 1,700 square feet and will have four or five changing exhibits of works by emerging and contemporary artists. Shuttles will link the hotel and West Bend museum.

Poetry slams, plays, lectures and other performances will happen in the theater. An artist-in-residence, art classes and art-inspired lodging also are part of the plan.

“A collaboration of this stature between a museum and hotel is truly groundbreaking,” says Laurie Winters, the museum’s executive director. “This is unique in the museum industry.”

Helping to design the hotel and curating its inaugural contemporary art collection is Linda Marcus, a former WTMJ-TV morning news anchor and fashion designer who was a contestant on the “Project Runway” reality TV show.

“The hotel will grow in ways we didn’t imagine, I hope,” she told art enthusiasts at a museum luncheon in March. saintkatearts.com

The Saint Kate is arguably not Milwaukee’s first art hotel. The Pfister bills itself as having the world’s largest collection of Victorian art in a hotel. Besides 80-some pieces of art, the historic hotel 10 years ago began hiring an artist-in-residence whose one-year term includes a work studio and gallery near the high-traffic lobby.

Rosy Petri, a multi-disciplinary artist whose specialties include photo and quilt portraits, is the newest Pfister artist-in-residence. Watch her work and download a free phone app to find the Pfister’s art collection. thepfisterhotel.com

One more: The Current, a four-diamond Marriott hotel in downtown Davenport, is big on Iowa-made art and art with an Iowa theme. That includes corn cobs made of glass, a big-as-life cow and various other farm-inspired creations. thecurrentiowa.com

In each guestroom is a blown-glass vase produced by the nonprofit Hot Glass Inc., which teaches the art-making skill to at-risk youth. hotglassart.org