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Kind of a Big Deal

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You might have been in the grand Old City Hall on Alabama Street when it was home to the State Museum, the Indianapolis Central Library or a pop-up TURF art exhibit during the Super Bowl festivities.

The civic palace with the spectacular rotunda sat vacant for a few years, but a new tenant has come along with ambitions as grand as those during the original 1910 construction.

21c will open a contemporary arts museum in the Old City Hall in late 2017 or early 2018. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • 21c will open a contemporary arts museum in the Old City Hall in late 2017 or early 2018.

In the next few years, 21c, which is short for 21st Century, plans to open a boutique hotel in an adjoining glass tower and turn the Old City Hall into a hip downtown contemporary art museum just off the Cultural Trail and a few blocks from Mass Ave. If you’ve never been to the Louisville flagship or the Cincinnati outpost of the 21c chain, it features cutting-edge exhibitions that push the boundaries of the new and now. Think: Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, but with much more public exhibition space and a chef-driven restaurant with artisanal libations and entrées that could be splashed across a full-page spread in Saveur Magazine.

As they say, it's kind of a big deal. It's going to expose Indy to the latest work from some of the chicest artists around the world. The 21c in Cincy, for instance, has partnered with Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center for the first U.S. solo exhibition for the renowned Brazilian multimedia artist Albano Afonso.

People have clamored for years for Indy to get a 21c, which has featured the work of Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close and other big-name heavyweights in the arts world. The chain was founded in Louisville in 2006 by art collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, and it has since spread to Cincinnati, Bentonville and Durham, with more locations planned in Lexington, Nashville, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.

The hotels have picked up a heap of awards, including the Travel + Leisure 500 World's Best Hotels 2015 list. Forbes Magazine has called staying there a "night at the museum."

21c will bring contemporary art, like this piece in Louisville, to the Old City Hall downtown. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • 21c will bring contemporary art, like this piece in Louisville, to the Old City Hall downtown.

That's basically what distinguishes 21c from art hotels like The Alexander, which has an Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art gallery, and The Conrad, which added the Long-Sharp Gallery and other artworks in its splashy lobby. They're "art hotels" that feature art in the rooms, whereas 21c is a full-fledged museum with a range of cultural programs, including a book signing that brought 300 people to downtown Louisville on a Thursday night, 21c Museum Director Alice Gray Stites explains.

"It's not an art hotel with art for decoration," Stites says. "It's a museum that's open to the public with weekly tours and a full roster of cultural events. We've had public yoga, film screenings and performance art. We have book signings and artists giving lectures. It's a full roster. We don't just show art. It's a contemporary art museum with museum-quality exhibits."

She's looking at working with the Indianapolis Museum of Art and other local art groups on collaborative programming, the way 21c has in other cities.

The 21c Pip Mobile, or the pomegranate limousine, outside the 21c Museum in Louisville. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • The 21c Pip Mobile, or the pomegranate limousine, outside the 21c Museum in Louisville.

The 21c museum will feature a permanent collection of five or six pieces as well as frequent temporary shows that anyone can visit for free around the clock, since it is after all also a hotel where the lobby is always open.

Current 21c exhibits include Serkan Özkaya’s interactive mobile app MyMoon and Duke Riley's See You At The Finish Line in Bentonville, which features the flight of homing pigeons across the Florida Straights and a zodiac-themed riverboat race in China.

The 21c museum in Durham is displaying Seeing Now, a selection of multi-media works from more than two dozen artists that include Nick Brandt's photography elegy to Kenya, Hans Op de Beeck's lyrical animation, Wu Jian' an's paper collage, Peter Demetz's wooden sculpture and Hank Willis Thomas's portraiture.

Even if you've ever seen a 21c show a few hours away in Louisville or Cincy, the incarnation that comes here may be completely fresh.

The 21c shows frequently change based on current events. An exhibit of Cuban work, for instance, got overhauled when traveling from Louisville to Cincinnati once President Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, and relaxed sanctions and a travel ban that had been in place for decades.

Each 21c Museum has five or six permanent installations. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • Each 21c Museum has five or six permanent installations.

"We decided to focus the artwork and the writing to reflect the changing conditions," Stites says. "There's the opportunity to change exhibitions based on current events. We like to keep it fresh."

And the Hybridity: The New Frontier exhibit that's now showing in Louisville featured more taxidermied animal hybrids when it first opened in Bentonville, including a gazelle with human facial features and a songbird with a robot head. Now it's evolved to where it's more about hybrid spaces.

"We wanted to reflect the changing conditions in our physical environment, particularly from climate change and the effects of the digital revolution," Stites says. "We think ahead with exhibitions for several months. We're always paying attention to the news, listening and reading and looking at examples by other artists."

And 21c will commission famed New York City Architect Deborah Berke, who's also designing the Cummins office tower at the long-neglected Market Square Arena site, to renovate the building in a $55 million project that will also involve a gleaming 10-story glass building with 150 rooms immediately north of the Old City Hall on Alabama Street. She's also renovated the historic Metropole Hotel in Cincinnati and a 17-story Art Deco tower in Durham for 21c.

A piece at the Hybridity: The New Frontier exhibit at the Louisville 21c. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • A piece at the Hybridity: The New Frontier exhibit at the Louisville 21c.

"It's another step in the transformation of downtown," explains Jason Shelley, Executive of the Indianapolis chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which recently hosted Berke for a public lecture. "The 21c project is, in fact, preserving history, which is another feather in the cap for downtown. It's a grand structure that has been there for a long time. When you have a structure that has stood the test of time and it's going to be transformed for a new purpose, that shows why design matters."

The monumental Classical building at 202 N. Alabama St. is best known for its Roman Doric columns and massive limestone eagle sculptures, but will soon be taken over by penguins.

Serkan Özkaya's David towers outside the 21c in Louisville. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH S PETE
  • Photo by Joseph S Pete
  • Serkan Özkaya's David towers outside the 21c in Louisville.

One of the defining characteristics that make 21c hotel/museums distictive are the colorful plastic penguins that first debuted at the Vienna Biennale. The penguins, which get moved around a lot by staff and guests, are red in Louisville but different colors at each location.

The color scheme for Indy hasn't been decided yet.

Stites is also coy on whether the Indianapolis location will feature massive public art outside, such as Özkaya’s towering 30-foot-tall gold statue of Michelangelo's David outside the Louisvlle 21c. It's the kind of eye-popping piece that makes heads crane and every passerby instictively reach for their camera phone.

Stites needs to further explore the Old City Hall to plan the Indianapolis museum but is excited about the location near the Mass Ave. arts district.

"It's a great location for us, where we can bring our determination to be locally engaged and globally connected," she says. "We want to add to a vibrant arts community. We're thrilled to be a center for the contemporary arts and for the role we'll play in the cultural ecology."

The goal is to open the museum by late 2017 or early 2018.

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