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A novel art hotel concept is coming to a historic downtown Durham building

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One New Year's Day a couple of years ago, I woke up groggy and hungry in Louisville, Kentucky.

In search of brunch, I found Proof on Main, an ultra-modern restaurant and bar filled with art, including seagull sculptures suspended from the ceiling. Proof on Main is in the flagship 21c Museum Hotel, a hybrid establishment devoted to contemporary art and food with a local focus. It also has outposts in Bentonville, Arkansas; Cincinnati; and—soon—downtown Durham.

After a brunch of phenomenal Eggs Benedict, I wandered through the hotel's sprawling gallery space looking at exhibits of photography, painting and mixed media as well as several permanent installations: smokestacks blowing infinite rings into the air, an interactive display where your body deflects falling letters, a larger-than-life red penguin sculpture that serves as 21c's mascot.

Durham's 21c Museum Hotel will be located in the historic Hill Building on the corner of Parrish and Corcoran streets. Scheduled to open in the first half of 2015, it will contain 125 hotel rooms, 10,500 square feet of exhibition space and a restaurant with an open kitchen drawing on local cuisines. There will also be a raw bar highlighting North Carolina's seafood.

"Durham has a great, vibrant arts community, something we look for when opening a 21c," says Stephanie Greene, director of public relations. "It's important to us to complement existing arts activities and collaborate with existing arts organizations."

With rates starting at $259 per night, the hotel rooms aren't accessible for everyone, but the art is. The museum will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is free to the public. Leaving the museum open all night lets visitors stroll through the galleries after dinner or drinks on the town—and it's a boon for insomniac guests.

"Not only can people come in off the street at 9 or 10 at night, but they can come down in their pajamas at 2 a.m.," says Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and director of art programming. "It offers a different experience for people to engage with the art and makes them want to come back."

All of 21c's locations exclusively feature 21st-century art (hence the name), with exhibits rotating approximately every six months. The opening exhibit for Durham's museum has yet to be selected.

"21c is really committed to sharing innovative art," Stites says. "You'll see everything from traditional painting, sculpture and photography to software-generated works, found works, performances and a whole range of installations. The nature of the collection is that it's intended to embrace and reflect the range of human experience in the world today. You can expect to see, I hope, the best of the new."

The interior of the Bentonville 21c Musuem Hotel - PHOTO BY RETT PEEK
  • Photo by Rett Peek
  • The interior of the Bentonville 21c Musuem Hotel

The first 21c was founded in 2006 by contemporary art collectors and native Kentuckians Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. They loved the way people responded to their personal art collection and wanted to contribute to the revitalization of downtown Louisville. Though they initially had no intention of creating a franchise, their flagship museum hotel's success inspired the 21c team to try their luck in other up-and-coming arts scenes, too.

Cultural programming is a major component of the museum's mission, relying on collaborations with local artists and organizers to develop programs that fit local needs. In the past, programming has included collaborations with Cincinnati's Design Week and Louisville's Actors Theatre, in addition to a regular roster of monthly programs such as indie film screenings or Art With Yoga sessions.

From artist lectures and film nights to screen-printing demonstrations and concerts, most events are free and open to the public.

"21c will contribute to downtown's image as an innovator and will draw on the creative cultural environment already in place," says Geoff Durham, president of Downtown Durham Inc. "It will bring a unique combination of hospitality and creativity to downtown." But if 21c is good for Durham's future, what about its past?

Named after John Sprunt Hill, whose bank was one of its first tenants, the Hill Building is one of Durham's most prominent architectural landmarks. The Art Deco structure, completed in 1937, was designed by the same firm as the Empire State Building. The building will maintain its historic façade, but the interior is getting a modern facelift.

"It's about recognizing the historical features, from the floors, to some of the walls, to the way the rooms are laid out," says Gerry Link, general manager of Durham's 21c. "We're repurposing, reusing, re-inventing those to modernize a historical building while honoring its history." We called Wendy Hillis, Executive Director of Preservation Durham, to ask what role they had in the process.

"Absolutely none!" Hillis says. "It was one of those projects that was such a right fit that there was no need for advocacy. Because the building is downtown, [21c] had to get a certificate of appropriateness from the city's Historic Preservation Commission. We monitored the project as it went through and never had issues with anything. They hired a local historical consultant and they know what they're doing with historic buildings."

Though the grand opening is still months away, Durham's 21c is already beginning to stir. The penguin I saw in Louisville is a symbol of all 21c locations, appearing in a different color in each city. (The penguins, designed by artist collective Cracking Art Group, originated in Venice, where Brown and Wilson saw a row of them standing on the bank of a canal, loved them, and later managed to incorporate them into their collection.)

Louisville has red, Cincinnati yellow and Bentonville green. Durham's penguin color was recently announced to be fuchsia, and 21c is running a "spot the penguin" contest via its Twitter feed, where people who correctly guess the locations of penguin sculptures in photos have the chance to win prizes such as room packages. The hotel also just started accepting room reservations for May 1, 2015 or later.

"21c is diverse, unique, fun," Link says. "It's about discovery, and that lends itself to a tremendous guest experience. It's worked in Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville, and we have every goal of it being a success here in Durham."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Night at the museum"

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