What 21c Might Mean for Art in Cincinnati

Since Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel has announced a planned expansion into downtown Cincinnati, the discussion has centered on two issues: What does snagging an award-winning boutique hotel mean to local economic development and what will happen to the l

Nov 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Since Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel has announced a planned expansion into downtown Cincinnati, the discussion has centered on two issues: What does snagging an award-winning boutique hotel, a first for Cincinnati, mean to economic development, and what will happen to the low-income residents of the Metropole Apartments at 609 Walnut St., which is slated to be renovated into 21c by 2012.

Both are important questions, but as an arts writer they’re not my bailiwick. But I can maybe offer some insight into what 21c might mean for the visual (and other) arts in Cincinnati. I’ve stayed there and written about it for a Los Angeles Times travel story.

First of all, it truly has an artistic sensibility — courtesy of owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown — and functions like a small contemporary museum. The name refers to the fact it features work only by artists alive and working in this century. The museum portion shows both permanent installations and changing exhibitions and is especially strong with multimedia installations and conceptual pieces.

And while the red plastic penguins that line the Louisville building’s roof are cute, there’s far more of an edge to its art collection than that. Outside on the street, in front of the entrance to its epicurean restaurant, Proof on Main, there is a brass chandelier hanging from a wooden gallows pole, outfitted with LED lights for illumination. Artist Werner Reiterer of Austria means it as a reference to “the Ku Klux Klan, lynch justice and the continuing use of the death penalty in most U.S. states,” according to 21c’s Web site. That’s pretty provocative.

When I first visited, the sound system played Nick Cave and Lou Reed and there was a video projection on the floor, right in front of the check-in desk, of a couple in bed. Even the public restrooms had art — eyes of members of a blind dart-throwing group stare out from tiny LED monitors in the mirror. (It’s from a video-installation piece, “In the Absence of Voyeurism 6 and 7,” by Sean Bidic.)

The rooms also featured video art playing on flat-screen TVs. An in-hotel station played a dreamily sensuous, dialoguefree art video, The Septemberists by Anthony Goicolea, in which schoolboys on a rural farm shear sheep, pick cotton and catch octopi. Also, Wilson and Brown are patrons of Cincinnati artist/ composer Jay Bolotin, and his “wood-cut motion picture” The Jackleg Testament also could be seen on TV.

The Cincinnati location is different from Louisville in that 21c will be adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Center — which has international art exhibitions — and across the street from the Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, which has regional ones. Still, neither institution collects contemporary art, so 21c could definitely fill a hole there. It’s also possible, since the Metropole once housed a Jazz club called the Living Room, that there could be some kind of performance space in it.

I posed some of these questions to Wilson, who must feel this is putting the cart before the horse and declined comment for now. But his spokesperson did e-mail a statement suggesting that art — and the arts — will be an important consideration here.

“They definitely want to position 21c as a cultural space in the community and work with local arts groups to promote all art forms, but all of that is in its infancy right now,” the statement said. “They also don’t know exactly what the 21c collection in Cincinnati will look like right now — it is too far out to have anything concrete.”

CONTACT STEVE ROSEN: [email protected]