Alice Gray Stites will speak about how learning is becoming the new luxury at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York. See the complete list of amazing speakers and topics at this year’s event.

3_years_of_skift“Hybridity: The New Frontier” is an art exhibition at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville exploring the confluence of the organic natural environment and the advance of manufactured technoculture. The paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos are created by a collection of domestic and international artists who blur the line between tech and humanity.

According to 21c Museum Hotels: “Influenced by Romanticism and Surrealism, science and commerce, these artists envision how the dreams and detritus of the industrial era have generated the promise and peril of the digital age.”

No matter what you think of contemporary art, the themes behind exhibitions like Hybridity are relevant to everyone to some degree, with the power to connect art lovers and casual observers alike. That is the defining mission of 21c Museum Hotels, where locals and visitors in second tier cities can discuss contemporary art beyond the ivory towers of the cultural elites.

21c Museum Hotels presently operate in Louisville, Cincinnati, Durham, and Bentonville, with Lexington, Oklahoma, Kansas City, Nashville, and Indianapolis in development.

“Learning is the new luxury in today’s experience economy,” says Alice Gray Stites, chief curator at 21c Museum Hotels. “Learning is something that we all aspire to do, and it is far more desirable in our culture today where what is considered a luxury isn’t about objects. It’s about experiences.”

Each of the 21c buildings are a work of artistic expression themselves, including new adaptive reuse projects like the old city hall in Indianapolis. Steve Wilson, founder of 21c Museum Hotels, says the physical properties are designed as museums that promote movement through multiple connected spaces in non-linear fashion.

“21c is a hotel and a museum, and we design the facility for art,” explains Wilson. “We don’t use art as decoration.” Moreover, the art selected focuses on the present and the future. Wilson has sometimes joked that if an artist dies, he or she is removed from the collection.

In the following Q&A, Gray Stites elaborates on how learning is the new luxury in our modern experience economy.

Skift: What is 21c Museum Hotels’ mission?

Alice Gray Stites: 21c Museum Hotels is an innovator and a leader in the experience economy, because 21c provides access to contemporary art 24 hours a day, seven days a week, both for guests and the public. We provide curated art exhibitions at the level of museum standards, offering a broad range of experiences for people to go on a transformative journey.

Skift: How is learning becoming the new luxury? And how does that apply to hospitality?

Gray Stites: Educational travel is so popular today, and that’s why many hotels and restaurants are trying to communicate an authentic design and guest experience to help people learn about the local economy. You can see everywhere in our culture there’s this emphasis on learning experiences and experiences of discovery. That is what binds people together and makes an experience memorable.

Art has the possibility to illuminate how people live in the next city or halfway around the world, and it gives us new perspective on our environments, our social life, identity, relationships with other cultures. When that is part of your experience at hotels or restaurants, it makes it incredibly memorable and tends to whet one’s curiosity and appetite to learn more and come back. That’s why learning is really the new luxury. It makes us feel like there’s more ahead of us, more to discover, more to experience and more opportunities. It makes people feel young.

Skift: How do you define the guest experience at 21c?

Gray Stites: One of the things I love about my job is watching people as they walk through the exhibition spaces, people of all ages, when they go, “Ooh, let’s go look at that down the hall!” Our guest experience is about finding something to discover and bonding over that. It can also erase barriers between age, race and class because we can all discover interesting things together and then share those. And not just in the main lobby where we have exhibition spaces, but also in places like the elevator lobby. There’s those moments when you’re traveling as a single traveler when it can be awkward or tiresome waiting for the elevator, but if there’s artwork there that is interesting or interactive, it becomes a piece of social sculpture. So that can be memorable just from a personal experience, or you’re going to bond with someone you’ve never met before because you’re experiencing art together.

Some of the art can be very provocative, very challenging, but I find people actually like to be challenged. That’s why people travel. So sometimes there are difficult ideas, difficult conversations or topics, which can be discussed in a way that creates a potentially transformative experience.

Skift: How do you blend all of the international art with a local travel experience, and does 21c attract a significant volume of local residents?

Gray Stites: You definitely provide a local flavor through the restaurants where we always include local art, as well as from around the world, so you get a mix of the well known and the not so well known. It’s both local and global. It’s really fantastic to see people at 21c from all over the world come here and know we have a global experience.

The other component that I’m in charge of at the museum department is our programming. Each museum hotel hosts poetry readings, various performances, and we give exhibition tours by our professionally trained staff. There’s a whole range of activities and learning experiences or entertainment available not just for hotel guests, but also the public because all of our programming is free. So those are widely attended by locals.

Recently we had a video collaboration between a video artist and the Louisville Ballet, and that brought in 350 people over the course of two nights. That was probably 75% from the community, 25% hotel guests. Then the conversation started happening between the people who live in Louisville and people visiting, so that’s resulting in some terrific connections. So again, that makes the experience for the guest really memorable.

Skift: What can you tell us about the 21c buildings?

Gray Stites: All of the hotels are designed by Deborah Berke & Partners out of New York, who has done such a wonderful job designing other cultural venues and museum spaces, as well as 21c Hotels. We are typically looking for a site downtown that is accessible to people that is not only part of the vibrant downtown culture, but actually adds to it. They all have different stories about how their sites were selected, which were really ripe for renovations, so we’re resurrecting them and bringing them back to life. We’re not only reviving the history of the city but moving it further into the 21st century.

So it’s the same with the art of today. We’re not only sharing images about what is going on right now, but a lot of contemporary art is about what going to happen in the future, and I think that is essential to our hotel design element. That is central to the experience for the visitor because it really encourages the way people think about progress and think about the future.

Skift: How does 21c make art more accessible and enjoyable for the layman?

Gray Stites: By putting it everywhere. A group called Crackling Art makes plastic penguins for every hotel using different colors, and this adds an immediate sense of fun and whimsy for first-time visitors. The penguins can accompany people to the restaurant, they can accompany you to your room. That’s one way.

As a curator I don’t try to predict or project what I think people’s responses will be to the art. We very much welcome a broad range of responses, of course, because our visitors are responsible for creating a conversation, creating a connection, and creating a special experience. As curators we provide a lot of information in brochures, on the walls, on the website. We give tours and all of our staff is trained to share information about the art and the artists’ visions.

Even if you walk down from your room at 3 a.m. in the morning for a glass of wine, you can choose to engage the art in a very personal way, or you can come to one of our programs and really dive into it. We encourage people to enjoy the art as they wish, to ask questions, to respond and come back and see what’s next.

Skift: How is technology integrated into the guest experience at 21c?

Gray Stites: The default channel on the televisions in the guest rooms feature films and videos that are part of our exhibitions at all of the current venues, as well as programming directed by documentary filmmakers Art21, which are short interviews with contemporary artists. There’s also lot of tech-based work in the collections, and I think we’ve really embraced art that uses technology in really thoughtful, humanist ways. And then each museum hotel has a dedicated video lounge where we show videos, films and other new media work. There’s also a museum hotel app that’s part of the 21c collection, which launched in May.

Skift: How does 21c collaborate with other cultural venues?

Gray Stites: That’s a great question. Collaborating with other venues is a big part of what we do, which takes place with other cultural institutions and universities. Through those professional collaborations we’ll offer opportunities to bring a speaker to one of the hotels, or a performance. Or if there’s something dramatic going on the city, that provides some interesting opportunities. For example this year in Louisville, the mayor announced the Yes! Fest theme is all about The Year of Sustainability, so all of the cultural venues around the city are working together and focusing on environmental issues.

In Cincinnati, we’ve had terrific collaborations there. The building shares a wall with the Contemporary Arts Center [CAC], which is a wonderful institution, and as soon as we opened, the CAC approached 21c about training their docents to give tours of our exhibitions. So we have a shared docents program with them, which is terrific. The curator of the CAC and I have co-curated the first museum survey exhibition of an artist from Brazil, Albano Afonso. We installed the exhibition in both museum spaces and created an outdoor component to connect them.

Those opportunities continue to emerge in other cities as well because we make a big effort to say to other groups, “We really want to work with you, whether it’s collaborating thematically around the city with major institutions or providing event space for a cultural non-profit that might not have their own event space.

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Photo Credit: Alice Gray Stites is chief curator at 21c Museum Hotels. 21c Museum Hotels