Art Meets Luxury at 21c Art Museum Hotels

It’s been 13 years since preservationists and art collectors, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, opened their first 21c Museum Hotel. It operates inside renovated 19th century warehouse space in Louisville, Kentucky. Its two-story contemporary art gallery immediately set this hotel apart. Free, and open daily, the gallery offers guided tours on Wednesdays and Fridays. These 21st-century art exhibits rotate among 21c properties every six to eight months. This art museum hotel brand has definitely jumped into the boutique hotel scene in a big way, seamlessly blending art and luxury.

21c art museum hotel

Art meets luxury in the 2-story art gallery lobby at the 21c in Louisville. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

There's also a 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky; Cincinnati; Bentonville, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Oklahoma City; Nashville; and Kansas City, Missouri. More hotels are slated for Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis.

Each property features complimentary Wi-Fi and a chef-driven restaurant. Environmentally friendly toiletries are aluminum-, alcohol-, paraben-, baking soda- and residue-free as well.

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A flock of four-foot-tall recycled plastic penguins reminds visitors about environmental conservation. They also migrate throughout the hotel upon request. Penguins have hidden behind shower curtains and ‘greeted’ guests at the elevator.

I stayed at and visited several 21c Museum Hotels. Come along to discover what I found:

A New Concept Begins: Art Museum Hotel in Louisville

This flagship 91-room property operates amid Louisville’s Museum Row. A massive gold statue of David stands near the restaurant entrance.

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A massive David statue sits in front of 21c Louisville. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Red Penguins flock from roof line to gift shop, and wine refrigerator. One penguin stood just outside my window.

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Recycled penguins appear and disappear throughout the hotel. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

On the main floor, a black-and-white video installation mirrored each guest’s movements near the elevators. A long mural, in the white upstairs hallway, depicted black figures at sunset.

In my Luxury King room, a rubber ducky smiled from the shower. I also found a fluffy robe and bathmat. And I enjoyed one of the strongest hotel showers, ever.

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The rooms are spacious and welcoming at 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Neutral colors filled the bedroom and a colorful painting hung above the bed. Upholstered chairs and a desk created a comfortable work space. There was also a coffee maker and a mini-bar. Surprisingly, only four hangers occupied the nicely sized closet.

The Original 21c Gallery in Louisville

After admiring antique architecture along Main Street in Louisville, I explored the hotel's Labor&Materials art exhibit. Its goal was to “explore the evolution of industry in the 21st century.” Hand-forged branding irons featured 21st century symbols. They included the Playboy Bunny and the design for a Rolling Stones album cover.

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This enormous sculpture anchored gallery space at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

A photo series called Carpoolers depicted everyday life in Monterrey, Mexico. Massive paintings, life-sized figures, and fabric art were also displayed. In addition, an enormous metal art piece hung near the stairs.

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Browse the art gallery in the 21c in Louisville. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Dinner and Turn Down Service in Louisville

The hotel restaurant, PROOF, had a funky vibe with unique chandeliers, and a buffalo head near the door. It was packed at 7 on a Tuesday night. A 20-page bar menu offered quartinos of wine or 1 ½ glasses.

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Proof on Main in 21c Louisville. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

I enjoyed a dinner salad while admiring a risotto bowl and a large burger with fries. The kitchen also kindly provided a sample of the restaurant’s smoked Kentucky catfish dip. Creamy and mild, it arrived with spicy hot sauce and house-made cracker crisp.

After refreshing espresso, horchata, and strawberry/rhubarb gelati and sorbet I returned to my room. Turn down service included very low light and Fair Trade chocolates.

Music City's 21c Museum Hotel

Opened in spring 2017, the 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville’s bustling urban core offers guests walkable access to small music venues and big museums. Despite a $40 fee, valet parking is recommended on this narrow one-way street.

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Turquoise Penguins decorate this urban hotel. Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel Nashville

Occasional Turquoise Penguins punctuated this dramatic hotel environment. Art decorated the front desk wall inside the two-story, white lobby. That’s where I learned I could tour the gallery will sipping spirits from the bar.

Nearby, a fictional animal resembled a taxidermy deer covered with feathers and leather. The elevator hallway showcased massive photographs. There was also an oil-based wood cut print, and a pigment print on metallic paper. A glass ‘box’ as tall as my nose displayed bright green salvaged plastic items.

A black metal stairway led to the lower gallery level. Called The SuperNatural, this large exhibition also included bird images created from soot on paper; digitally manipulated photo portraits; and massive images of jungle foliage.

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Each art exhibition fills gallery space on two floors. Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel Nashville

Dramatic Accommodations in Nashville

Upstairs, gray-black hall walls made it tough to see. Then ceiling lights turned on and created visual light ‘squares’ from floor to ceiling.

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Lighting is unique in the 21c Art Museum Hotels. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Drama continued in my Luxury King guest room. The low-ceiling entryway featured a black wall and a wood pillar. It opened into the bedroom area where ceiling height soared. Striking zebra-stripe drapes and sheers covered massive windows.

A white chandelier, above the desk table and love seat, resembled dozens of long paper strips. Black hexagonal floor tiles and large white wall tiles filled the bathroom. Recessed lights framed the mirror.

Dinner in the Bar in Nashville

Inside the bar at Gray & Dudley, three-story windows illuminated dark upholstery and wood. An outdoor planter full of large ferns added green beauty. The adjacent restaurant had a lower ceiling, creamy walls and an open kitchen.

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Guests will find art near the restaurant. Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel Nashville

I ordered a 6-ounce glass of wine. Then I savored the Duck Fried Rice appetizer with fried egg. It was smoky, creamy, and savory, with chewy duck bits. The dessert menu included five desserts and a handful of digestifs.

A hot shower and a comfortable bed capped off my pleasant stay.

Historic and Modern Details Blend in Kansas City

I joined a tourism representative for lunch at The Savoy at 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City, Missouri.  It was once the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi. In addition, President Harry Truman enjoyed this 1880s splendor inside the original The Savoy Hotel.

Dark wood and columns still complement vintage murals. There are massive stained-glass windows, and a tile-faced bar. The original restaurant space has become private dining and lounge space.

21c indulged residents' affection for the downtown property by maintaining this original bar area. Local chef Joe West has created lunch dishes such as tasty Spaghetti Verde. Other spring dishes include Curry Chicken and Rice and Burger Royale.  An 8-ounce filet and French Dip plates are other, longstanding favorites. We also shared delicious Shaking Beef Lettuce Wraps.

A Pretty Interior in Kansas City

The art museum hotel in Kansas City opened in July 2018. Renovations here included pale walls, high ceilings and a flock of Sky Blue Penguins. Whitewashed hallways pair original and contemporary doors with new wood floors.

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Comfortable accommodations combine neutrals and deep purple. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

1800s-bathroom sinks contrast with chic modern surroundings, too. We visited an ADA-accessible luxury suite and the 21c suite. The latter offered a spacious private deck and gorgeous skyline views. In each room, wood, metal, and deep purple complement neutral furniture, walls and curtains.

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The Studio Suite at 21c Art Museum Kansas City. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Original exterior walls surround the fitness room, with a massive skylight installed many floors above. Rotating art exhibitions fill five galleries and a conference room, while guest room hallways display local art.

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Natural light pours into the fitness room space. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

When Art Arrives

During my initial visit to the Kansas City hotel, gallery areas were chaotic as the latest installation settled in. At the grand opening cocktail reception for Off-Spring: New Generations, hotel staff mingled with guests. A cash bar and light hors d’oeuvres preceded remarks by Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites. The featured artist, Anthony Goicolea, also spoke about his unusual photographic images.

Each staff member seemed to have a favorite piece and described it beautifully. The exhibition depicted religious, cultural, institutional, and domestic rituals.

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An exhibit unveiled at 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City in June. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Satin, silk and organza wedding dresses, filled with embroidered sayings about marriage, flowed from the lobby ceiling. Fabric, photography and three-dimensional art were also part of this exhibition. In six to eight months, a new installation will arrive from a different 21c property.

If you enjoy contemporary art and accommodations, as well as urban excitement, book a stay at a 21c Museum Hotel. For more information see each city’s tourism web site, such as (Kansas City), (Nashville) and (Louisville). Be sure to follow along on Wander for more about our favorite luxury hotels.

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer received accommodations and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

Written by Lisa Waterman Gray

A Kansas City-area resident, Lisa Waterman Gray has savored Quebec’s finest cuisine, ridden in a pickup before a Kansas buffalo herd, and toured natural Arizona landmarks with Native American guides. In June 2011, 18 months of driving, research, and writing ended with national publication of Lisa’s book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas. During October 2014, she was a U.S. delegate for Terre Madre and Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy – a conference for Slow Food International. Lisa has written for Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle (a Canadian magazine), USA, Midwest Living, four AAA magazines, and other clients. Visit her online at

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