Spending the night at a museum sounds like a childhood fantasy, and it has been for me since I put my grubby, little middle schooler hands on From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a young boy. That is until this past weekend when I got to experience the Kincaid experience firsthand in St. Louis. It was everything I was hoping for and more, including things my adolescent brain didn’t know I’d want one day, like free bourbon nightly.
In a 95-year-old Renaissance Revival building that used to house the Missouri capital’s downtown YMCA, 21c has debuted its newest property, a hybrid boutique hotel and contemporary art museum with a healthy touch of Midwestern charm. Like its sister properties scattered across the American South, the hotel is full of personality and lives and breathes art: it’s the first thing that greets you when you enter—more specifically, O, a massive spherical orb by Turkish-American conceptual artist Serkan Özkaya permanently installed in 21c’s lobby is impossible to miss—and stays close with you during your time. There’s Fallen Fruit‘s immersive stairwell, which spans three floors of the property with iconic St. Louis imagery superimposed onto wall reliefs and objects of function, and works by local artist and Washington University in St. Louis Dean of the Sam Fox School Carmon Colangelo, that hang in individual guest rooms.
Of particular note is Good Press Café. While the coffee house offers a respectable breakfast burrito, it’s the view above your table that you’ll remember: a kaleidoscopic artwork by Missouri native Nick Cave and his partner Bob Faust from Cave’s retrospective, “Forothermore,” which debuted at MCA Chicago before heading to the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year. It was one of the first projects 21c commissioned to inaugurate its St. Louis space Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites told me over coffee amongst the world of color, and it’s understandable why.
Speaking of curation, 21c’s actual museum features three temporary group exhibitions along with its just-opened “Revival: Digging Into Yesterday, Planting Tomorrow.” The inaugural exhibition was developed by Stites, and features 70 artworks from 21c’s permanent collection (many of which were acquired for this show) by 47 artists from 17 countries, and the body of work bleeds across multiple public spaces. Once used for sports programming, the preserved YMCA gym and track now display art that tackle St. Louis’ challenging past as well as topics from our shared human history. On view are artists such as Isaac Julien, Tyler Mitchell, Kapwani Kiwanga, Ebony G Patterson, Kehinde Wiley, and more, but one particular piece by Hank Willis Thomas has remained in my mind. Mining the iconography of 20th-century protest, the work is composed of images screen-printed onto retro-reflective vinyl and mounted on an aluminum composite material. Viewing it requires light-equipped glasses or a camera flash to reveal the whole image, in this case the fight for human rights.
Elsewhere at 21c there are the usual (and the much appreciated) amenities of a lovely stay. The basement-level gym (different than the basketball gallery shown above) is beyond any usual hotel offering, and the lobby restaurant Idol Wolf helmed by Matthew Daughaday offers a surprisingly-delicious array of Spanish-inspired cuisine at a lavishly-Midwestern scale. The paella, on the other hand, was not the most surprising discovery of the adventure, but like so many other notes, something to note for your return.
Joshua Glass is the founder and editor-in-chief of Family Style.