Post-Truth and Politics Are on Show at the New 21c Nashville
The boutique hotel brand inducts its newest property with a topical art exhibition.
Among Nashville’s many growing pains as it rapidly attracts new residents is the increasing throng of tourists—or more specifically, where to accommodate those visitors’ weary heads. The scarcity of hotels (and local government’s increasing vigilance over AirBnB) has meant that the options for accommodation have been not only limited, but expensive. As for lodgings for people who are more design-savvy—well, let’s just say pickings were even slimmer.
Fortunately, the last 12 months have offered some relief, with the arrival of the Thompson Hotel in the Gulch neighborhood, and, most recently, the opening of the 21c Museum Hotel downtown. 21c Nashville is the seventh addition to the 21c brand, which has not only eked out a niche for itself by wholeheartedly committing to the art-gallery-as-hotel concept, but also choosing smaller, regional cities for its hosts (its other properties call Lexington, Louisville, Oklahoma City, Durham, Cincinnati, and Bentonville, Arkansas, home).
Molly Swyers, 21c’s chief brand officer who has been involved with six of the seven 21c openings, says that the design process always prioritizes the gallery space over the hotel itself. “We want to make an impact when you walk in the door, so you’re walking into a contemporary art museum that just happens to have hotel rooms.”
In the case of 21c Nashville, that impact comes courtesy of Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Nashville, part of the hotel’s inaugural exhibition, Truth or Dare: A Reality Show. Özkaya’s immersive installation projected throughout the lobby creates the illusion that the walls of the building have dissolved, creating a seamless transition between interior and exterior, including views of the street and side alley.
The unsettling narrative thread of Truth or Dare—laden with political messages, sleights of the eye, and reminders of the fragility of life—befits the zeitgeist of Trump’s America. (Thankfully, in this navigation of the fine line between fact and fiction, there are also flashes of humor and optimism.) The exhibition combines paintings, sculpture, digital animation, videos and installations by more than 24 artists—including Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whose Bilateral Time Slicer Intermix uses facial recognition software to record an image of each viewer who passes by on a screen.
As they have done for each of their previous properties, 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson tapped Deborah Berke Partners for the design and interiors of the Nashville hotel, which reimagines the 1900s Chicago Style Gray & Dudley building, previously home to a hardware company. Though the vibe is thoroughly contemporary, it retains many of the beloved building’s historic elements, including cast iron and wood timber columns and large warehouse windows. Given that the building fits snugly against its neighbors, three light wells were cut into the structure to ensure more daylight in the guest rooms and ensure more efficient use of each floorplate.
“We’ve had our sights on Nashville for a while, and we looked for the right building and right opportunity for a very long time,” says Swyers. “Deborah Berke’s team was definitely inspired by the creative and maker culture that has existed for a long time in Nashville. I think that really presents itself in a lot of the finishes they selected. And the influence of the industrial use of the building and the grittiness of being located on an alley is nicely juxtaposed with a more sophisticated color palette and rich textures and fabrics.”
Swyers says that Deborah Berke and her team’s innate understanding of the 21c concept is what has led to such a fruitful, long-term relationship. “We finish each other’s sentences at this point,” she laughs. “It’s very rare to find a group that can really design for the art and let the architecture become the backdrop in many ways—they celebrate that the art is the star of the show.”
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