21c Museum Hotel Raises Bar on Art in OKC

A wholly original idea bubbled up in the art world a decade ago, and has spread with surety and savvy into rising cities across the South. What happens when an edgy contemporary collection meets a hotel public?

story by Veronica Pasfield | photos courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels, Magnus Lindqvist

21c Museum Hotels brings it big.

photos courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels, Magnus Lindqvist

A wholly original idea bubbled up in the art world about a decade ago, and it has spread with surety and savvy into rising cities across the South. This new notion was conceived by two major contemporary collectors in Louisville: ‘How can we make our collection more accessible to a wider public?’ The answering thought helped change the way America does hotels: ‘What if we understand the public spaces in a hotel as gathering spaces, open for the purpose of sharing art and ideas with community, as much as for guests?’

What emerged: 21c Museum Hotels, now with six locations across the South, which Conde Nast Traveler just dubbed “The New Artsy ‘It’ Hotel.” With the arrival of 21c here, forward-edge national travelers and the food culturati have compelling testimony that Oklahoma City belongs alongside other 21c cities such as Louisville and Durham, N.C.

Steve Wilson and wife, Laura Lee Brown, took a chance on art when they started the hotel. Brown is part of the Brown-Forman family, parent company for Woodford Reserve, Old Forester,  Jack Daniel’s, and others. Their hope: to combine their art and a historic location in downtown Louisville to help spur preservation and urban revitalization.

Similarly, the Hall brothers—Fred, Kirk, and Brooks— were open to a new vision for their grandfather’s Fred Jones Manufacturing building on the west end of Film Row. The two families share a passion for art, community, and old buildings.

“It was a natural feeling more than a market study,” said Wilson. “I was raised on a farm with no hotel experience. I sometimes say it’s better not to know the rules so you don’t have to worry about breaking them. We just decided that if other people wanted us (in their city), that the same kind of motivation in Louisville would work somewhere else.”

The OKC exhibits populate every corner of the 135-room hotel. Sometimes the art is overly ripe on the mind, like a strange fruit. Other times it’s steeped in play, like the campy video that loops on a screen above the bathroom sinks. One must show up, in every sense of that term, to feast on the ideas in 21c-OKC’s communal spaces.

Wilson is well aware of the risk he’s taking within the South’s genteel sensibilities. As one 21c-Durham visitor commented, “I think the buckle just fell off the bible belt.” Wilson remains convinced of the importance of art, in all its complexity: “I think even the ones who get offended are vocal, but they come back to get offended again.”

In OKC, one need go no farther than the walkway connecting Mary Eddy’s Kitchen x Lounge to the hotel lobby. There stands a sculpture of a young Black child holding a large gathering basket. The form is coated with molasses and sprinkled with brown sugar.

This piece was part of one of the most potent, epic American art installations in recent times—Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. It was commissioned to mark the destruction of the 1856 Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. The main work was a sugar-coated, four-story sphinx with a “mammy”-esque face. There would be no Domino without slaves, the sphinx and her “sugar babies” reminded; the protracted process of turning cane into white granules demanded it.

“Hopefully what is contained is assorted meanings about imperialism, about slavery, about a slave trade that traded sugar for bodies and bodies for sugar,” said Walker of her installation. 

Candor is a rare and transformative energy, especially in a place like Oklahoma City that is defined by its courtesy. The sculpture makes a heck of an impression as you pass from the delicacies of a Southern restaurant to the rest rooms. Thoughtful visitors might consider dessert a little differently by the time they return to the table. That’s a good thing.

Such inquisitiveness about labor and wealth feels charged in the context of this former Ford factory, too, which later became the Jones Assembly building.

“When we encounter something that’s unfamiliar, it can be off-putting,” said Alice Gray Stites, 21c’s chief curator. “But it will also spark a curiosity—and a desire, often—to learn more. We’re not looking to provoke, we’re looking to curate intelligent, thought-provoking exhibitions that animate the space, draw in the community, and enhance the careers of these artists.”

And so it continues throughout the hotel’s 14,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The Brown-Forman tradition also insures this Louisville-based hotelier remains steadfast in another commitment—good booze. The enormous windows at Mary Eddy’s (named for Mrs. Fred Jones) make for light-filled modern spaces to imbibe and eat. (See our Winter Issue for details on this historic architecture.) As twilight sets, Devon’s sky needle glimmers in the distance.

Importantly, reminds Barrels & Mash blogger Kris Kettner, the bourbon is legit. “The first thing that caught my eye was the bar and I immediately saw some beautiful glass silhouettes that I recognized and longed-for.”  Among 50 unique and quality pours: 2015 George T. Stagg, 2015 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.

And the food? Chef Jason Campbell cooked a piece of fish for me three years ago at the 21c in Cincinnati. That I took the time to write that sentence should indicate how much I enjoyed his absolute mastery over a wood fire.

As hoped, Chef Campbell comes through big. Eddy’s fish entrees are something to behold; sublimely conceived and expertly executed. The grilled trout with puffed farro, onion dashi, and cabbage ranks among the city’s best entrees. Same for the red drum (redfish) with chard and cornbread. The burger and the campanelle pasta with Meyer lemon broth and coddled egg are also big-city-dining good. Our main critique: the kitchen’s a bit heavy-handed with salt, while sometimes a touch light for Oklahoma’s bold palates on other seasonings. Desserts are deliciously worth the calories, but the only star was the flourless chocolate torte, served with housemate ice cream and candied Fresno pepper strips.

So, what say you, Oklahoma City? 21c has brought it, in full force. I hope our community supports this amazing hotel, restaurant, and bar. So far, it’s given this magazine every reason to do so.

900 W. Main St.; (405) 982-6900. 21cmuseumhotels.com/oklahomacity.