21c Austin: Mints on your pillow and prints, to boot

The developers of the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., are planning their second such combo of contemporary art and lodging for Downtown Austin

21c Austin from street level on East Third
21c Austin from street level on East Third

It's a hotel! It's an art museum! It's a hotel! It's an art museum!

Artist's rendering of 21c Austin's full 44 floors, facing 
Artist's rendering of 21c Austin's full 44 floors, facing south

It's a floor wax and a dessert topping!

The announcement last week that the developers of the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., are planning their second such combo of culture and lodging for our town called to mind that early Saturday Night Live gag spoofing corporate America's knack for slapping together two very different products into one unlikely package. A contemporary-art museum and a high-end hotel in the same building? Indeed, and reports from Louisville, where the 91-room hotel/9,000-square-foot museum opened in the heart of downtown a year ago, are that the fusion works at least as well as the mash-up of chocolate and peanut butter. The accommodations are posh, with an eye to the hot and hip – 500-thread-count sheets; 42-inch high-def, flat-screen TVs; iPods that can be preprogrammed with requested music before you check in – and the artwork reflects that same of-the-moment sensibility: a focus on living artists, with more up-and-comers than Museum of Modern Art superstars, and heavy on the video projections, installations, and large-scale photographic prints. And the same sort of work that's exhibited in the museum (in shows programmed by independent curators) is all through the hotel – in the lobby, the rooms, the restrooms, the restaurant, the elevators – creating a unifying aesthetic approach throughout the operation.

That's the guiding hand of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the Kentucky couple who conceived of the 21c in 2003 out of their shared love for contemporary art. The two had been collecting art individually even before they met in the mid-Nineties, and since they wed, their mutual passion has just intensified. They've purchased more than 600 artworks together, and their idea of a vacation includes a stop at the Venice Biennale or Art Basel. Of the 21c projects, Wilson says, "The driver here is art, in all its forms: contemporary art by emerging and acclaimed regional and international artists, architecture of the finest caliber, and cuisine by true artisans in the culinary world."

In bringing the concept to Texas, Wilson and Brown are going bigger – way bigger: 209 rooms in the hotel, plus another 202 luxury condos, a dozen lofts geared for artists (and artists' pocketbooks, they say), the museum, a spa, an underground parking garage, and at least one restaurant, all packaged in a sleek 44-story skyscraper at Third and Brazos. (Is it illegal to build something with fewer than 40 stories Downtown now?) Designing the building will be the New York firm of Deborah Berke & Partners, the Boston firm of Goody Clancy Architecture, and the Austin firm of Susman Tisdale Gayle. The project, totaling 779,000 square feet, is projected to cost $200 million. The developers expect to break ground early next year and open 21c Austin in 2010. Brown and Wilson hope to have 15 of these projects up and running around the country by 2015. For more information, visit www.21cmuseumhotel.com.

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21c Museum Hotel, Laura Lee Brown, Steve Wilson, Downtown Austin development, contemporary art

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