The historic Savoy Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, re-opened Tuesday with a new name: 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City.
“We never dreamed that there’d be more than one when we started,” says founder Steve Wilson, who launched the first 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006, with his wife, Laura Lee Brown.
There are now eight boutique hotels in the chain, and each includes curated gallery spaces and site-specific installations of 21st century art.
“My wife and I love and collect contemporary art and we wanted a way to share the collection,” Wilson says, “so we sort of dreamed up the idea of 21c in Louisville for that purpose and also to help revitalize some empty buildings.”
21c has turned old buildings into hotels at all of its sites, except for one new structure in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Kansas City location is housed in the historic Savoy building; constructed in 1888, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 21c was able to secure state and federal historic tax credits, as well as tax increment financing for the project.
New York-based architects Deborah Berke Partners worked with Kansas City-based architecture firm Hufft Projects to modernize the building. The team also restored architectural features such as the original mosaic tile floor and a stained glass dome.
“It was a challenge,” says Wilson. “The Savoy Grill was so historic that we were required to keep the interior intact, which is something we haven’t done before.”
Contemporary art is placed throughout the property, starting with the entrance. Luftwerk’s “Linear Sky,” an installation with vertical LED lights based on the changing colors of Kansas City’s wide open skies, lines the entry ramp hallway.
The 21c Museum Hotels collection, maintained in Louisville, now includes about 3,000 works of art from artists around the world. And — as it expands to more cities — nearly 80,000 square feet of exhibition space across the country.
"What was a personal passion for collecting contemporary art," says museum director and chief curator Alice Gray Stites, "has become an organization with a public mission to broaden access to thought provoking contemporary art."
Gray Stites says the inaugural exhibition in Kansas City, Refuge, focuses on global migration — a timely topic, although the show has been in the works for at least two years.
More than 50 international artists explore the theme of "seeking, needing and creating shelter" in painting, photography, film and video installation, and sculpture.
"Certainly there's been a proliferation in the refugee crisis, but not just in the last year and the last several years," says chief curator Alice Gray Stites.
"(In Kansas City), we are in what was the American West," she says, "and a lot of mythologies that come from the history of this part of our country about ideas around Manifest Destiny, which was, of course, an idea that justified the displacement of a lot of people."
Multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer’s “Super Catcher, Vast Array” is a site-specific sculptural work inside the former Savoy Grill, now converted into a bar and lounge. The installation is tied to Kansas City's biennial, Open Spaces, which launches in August.
Native American dream catchers, made of wire and bells, hang next to a 1903 mural showing scenes along the Santa Fe Trail. Kahlhamer says he appreciates this contrast between past and present.
"I'm used to showing in museums and galleries, you know, white boxes totally devoid of any architectural preconditions that this space has," he said. "And to see this work layered in kind of a generational history is I think quite unique."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.