The Art of Hospitality

By Janet Kurtz

Born of the mission to bring contemporary art to a wider audience, 21c Museum Hotels are working to change the way the public looks at art — and at hotels. Now xenia, the Greek concept of hospitality or “guest-friendship,” is alive at 21c Museum Hotel Nashville for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Future is Female exhibit, featuring four Nashville artists in the main galleries, is on display in the Second Avenue hotel through August 2023.

“Artists propose new ways of looking at the world, and that vision can lead to progress and change for the future,” said Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites.

21c Museum Hotels has become one of the largest contemporary art museums in the U.S. and is North America’s only collecting museum dedicated solely to art of the 21st century. With rotating exhibits across the company’s nine (soon to be 11) locations, pieces from the owners’ collection or displayed in collaboration with artists are offered as an expression of hospitality. Exhibition space is open to the public 24/7 and free of charge at the properties, which also feature boutique hotels and chef-driven restaurants.

Opened in 2017, the 21c Museum Hotel Nashville is just steps away from the famous Broadway and Printers Alley entertainment districts. Visitors to the hotel, a thoughtfully imagined, adaptive reuse of the Gray & Dudley hardware building, can stroll the 10,000 square feet of galleries while enjoying craft cocktails from the restaurant that bears the building’s name.

Guests of the hotel have the added bonus of Elevate exhibits throughout the elevator banks on the guest floors. Guest rooms, designed by Deborah Berke Partners, boast an industrial design with exposed brick and beams, high ceilings, hardwood floors, large windows with plenty of natural light and luxurious floor-to-ceiling drapery with pops of violet throughout the space.

Artfully playful foodie hotspot Gray & Dudley, which has a rotating exhibit all its own gracing its aubergine walls, is the perfect spot to begin or end an evening in Nashville. Its Southern-focused cuisine incorporates the freshest ingredients of the season, then pairs it with creative craft cocktails that embody the arts of hospitality and food. The U-shaped bar is a commanding presence that features a Tennessee-focused craft cocktail list. Helmed by executive chef Matt Bell, a Montana native, Gray & Dudley’s menu offers refined Southern dishes combined with approachable home cooking at breakfast, brunch and dinner.

Diners and hotel guests alike may find themselves in whimsical company. 21c Museum Hotels have four-foot-high penguin “mascots,” created by Cracking Art, standing sentinel around the properties — sometimes at the dinner table, sometimes in a guest’s room at check-in. Each hotel has its own color penguins; Nashville’s are teal.

“The public really chose the penguins,” 21c Museum Hotels co-founder Steve Wilson says on the company’s website. “They were part of our opening exhibition in Louisville and people couldn’t help but interact with them. They have really become an icon, and emblematic of our mission to make thought-provoking contemporary art more accessible to the public.”

They help 21c Museum Hotels to break down the barriers that can exist between art and the viewer. Art is not behind velvet ropes, and the goals are to satisfy the public’s hunger for art and to nurture artists’ ability to translate how they see the world.

‘The Future is Female’

In this exhibit, the fourth for the Nashville property, themes of ancient mythology, nature, power and self abound. It explores the affirmation of self while incorporating materials and techniques broadly categorized as female. To reflect the ongoing influence of feminist art of the 1970s, the art incorporates everyday materials like bedsheets, as well as craft-based practices such as sewing, weaving, embroidery and appliqué.

The slogan “‘The Future is Female’ is thought to have first appeared during the 1970s on a T-shirt designed for a women’s bookstore in New York City,” Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites says. “Over the last few years, the phrase has re-emerged on clothing, social media and various other platforms, reflecting and inspiring a reconsideration of what these terms — female and future — mean. While acceptance of gender fluidity is greater today, inclusion and equal rights remain contentious and contested issues. The work of the artists featured in this exhibition envision resistance, transformation and progress.”

The four local artists participating in The Future is Female are: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Jodi Hays, Benjy Russell and Vadis Turner. 21c Museum Hotel Nashville is at 221 Second Ave. N.; the exhibit will be on site until August 2023.