21c introduces downtown Nashville to radically accessible art
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21c introduces downtown Nashville to radically accessible art

Tucked between dazzling hotels and rambunctious honky tonks, some of Nashville’s visitors might not take note of the less imposing entrance to 21c. That is, until they spot the curious teal penguin peering out the window at them.

A closer look reveals a massive room that blends mod sterility with plush, luxurious sofas and a floating figure holding a puma on an embellished chain. The pulsating pop music is occasionally interrupted by the unidentifiable sound effects of the nearby film screening room.

It’s not until overhearing workers at the welcome desk mention room keys that visitors get the slightest hint that the space is actually a hotel.

The 21c Museum Hotel offers 10,500 square feet of carefully curated art at all hours of the day to its guests — whether they stay for the night or just blew in off the street. 

A closer look at Anasasia Schipani’s Matador Lady Killer reveals the tapestry’s title woven into the expanse of fabric.

“Before I worked for 21c, I was a guest. And I heard about an art museum that was open 24 hours a day and was always free — where you could get a drink and walk around and spin in these weird chairs and I was all for it,” said Pam Taylor, Museum Manager of Nashville’s 21c.

Taylor and her boyfriend at the time collected bourbon, often leading them to Kentucky on the hunt for a new bottle. They visited the original 21c in Louisville a few times, and went there again immediately after getting engaged. The engagement photos that became part of the wedding invitations were taken by the 21c valet working that night.

The museum is the brainchild of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who wanted to help revitalize their beloved downtown.

“They did a study and hired a firm to tell them what downtown Louisville needed, and they said they needed hotel rooms,” Taylor said. “If they had said Louisville needs transportation then maybe there would be 21c trains or something like that. But they said hotel rooms and that’s how the idea started.”

Though their website claims the couple had no intentions of expanding, Nashville was the seventh 21c property, with a new Chicago location set to open in the coming months. Now they have over 1,000 employees working together to create a boundary-pushing experience for guests.

“The founders have a lot of art in their home and they like to have people over and spend time with it and live and eat and sleep around amazing art,” Taylor said. “And I think they’ve given that to the people, you know, the opportunity to come eat and drink and hang out with friends around incredible art.”

Taylor now works as a one-woman department overseeing every component of the museum. She collaborates with executives on the exhibition layouts, oversees installations and coordinates multiple events each month.

One of her many job duties involves curating the Elevate program, an initiative to showcase local artists on each guest room floor.

“I select all of that completely,” she said. “I do a lot of studio visits and I like to try to embed myself in the show that’s in the museum and find work that speaks to the same ideas.”

The current exhibit, “Fragile Figures: Beings and Time,” is a contemporary look at portraiture, juxtaposing power and vulnerability in a way history has often looked over. Rather than wealthy nobility, this collection immortalizes people of color, injured soldiers, the homeless and other underserved populations as symbols of elegance and strength that traditional art would rarely allow them to be.

Alfred Conteh’s atomized steel portraits showcase Atlanta’s homeless population as god-like figures.

Going along with that theme, Taylor chose to showcase local painter, photographer and Belmont graduate Ashley Traube. Her collection “Body as Landscape” shows bodies rippled with stretch marks and dotted with freckles as subjects deserving the same reverence and respect as we show the rest of nature.

“I’ve been working with local women this past year who have been interested in collaborating and contributing to my work. So we kind of always start with an interview and they share their story of body acceptance and where they’re at with it, and that kind of becomes fuel for new artwork,” Traube said.

Her own experience feeds into her work, having used her talents to help guide her through struggles with an eating disorder. Her work comes from a place of healing her own wounds, and she hopes those who see her work feel empowered to start the process as well.

“Art is such a transformative experience and there should really be no gatekeepers,” Traube said. “Because then it becomes a class thing or has this social hierarchy which I feel for a lot of people is hanging them up and keeping them from connecting with the arts.”

The idea of radical accessibility to art is one of the central goals of 21c. When people interact with art, it can spark self-reflection, emotional healing and tough conversations.

“People want to love and see and respect art,” Taylor said. “I think people come in here because it’s open. There’s nothing to do sometimes or they hear about the spinny chairs, but then they’re faced with something really important.”

This exhibition in particular sparks conversations about race, war, police brutality and gender expression — topics visitors may not be eager to sit with at length.

“When people see contemporary art, they either change their opinions a little bit, or it reinforces what they already believed. Either way, you’re engaging with the art and that’s important,” Taylor said.

The contemporary nature of the art adds another layer to this engagement. 21c denotes the 21st century, showing only pieces created since the year 2000. Because almost all of the artists are still alive and creating, guests can study their work in a museum setting only to later find them on Instagram to see what they had for breakfast. 

21c is obviously not the typical art venue, and that departure from the usual can be a welcome change for those nervous about dipping their toes into the art world.

“There’s no one following you around and it’s not quiet in here. You can get a drink and walk around,” Taylor said. “So if someone was like, ‘oh I’d like to do that kind of stuff but it’s just not my scene,’ I would tell them that there is a scene somewhere for you, especially in Nashville.”

Though Taylor works full-time at 21c, she remains an active piece of Nashville’s collaborative art scene. Rather than competing for opportunities, she says artists here would rather find ways for others to succeed.

“People in Nashville are really generous with their wisdom and really willing to tell you the way they’ve succeeded so that you can succeed,” she said. 

With the strong community and transformative opportunity art can bring, the reward of connection often outweighs the risk of temporary discomfort. 

“I know that this can be hard,” Traube said. “But the more that you’re willing to put yourself out there and go to an art crawl and talk with the artist or talk with other people, or even just messaging other artists on Instagram, the more you’ll find that community.”

Photos by Katie Knipper.

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