03 April 2013 // Thoughts

The Business of Culture: When “Museum” is the Name of the Game

Welcome back to our series on “The Business of Culture: The Impact of Museums on Economic Development.” In our last post, we examined the correlation between the introduction or renovation of a museum into a neighborhood and residential property values. Today we’ll examine a hotel concept that is using culture to “cut through the clutter” and differentiate from other offerings – with very successful results.

In 2000, native Kentuckians and art enthusiasts Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson wanted to engage the public with contemporary art in a new way and to contribute to the revitalization of Downtown Louisville. Their solution was 21c Museum Hotel, a hotel that houses a free contemporary art museum open to the public 24/7. Located in a series of previously empty 19th century buildings, the 90-room 21c Louisville opened in 2006. By 2009, the boutique hotel was ranked #1 in the US in Conde Nast Travelers’ Readers Choice Awards, beating out such luxury brands as Mandarin Oriental and Ritz Carlton, and it returned to the top spot in 2010. In 2012, the concept expanded to Downtown Cincinnati, in a renovated Neo-Classical revival style building adjacent to the city’s Contemporary Arts Center (and, lucky for us, right around the corner from JRA). New locations are planned for Bentonville, Arkansas, Lexington, Kentucky and Durham, North Carolina in the next few years. All feature the same museum concept (the 21c Cincinnati museum is 8,000 square feet) with work from both local and internationally acclaimed artists.

Photo by Josh Minogue courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

Stephanie Greene, 21c Public Relations Manager of 21c, and Gerry Link, General Manager for 21c Cincinnati, were kind enough to answer a few questions about why guests and non-guests alike have been drawn to this cultural experience and what the success of these hotels has meant to their surrounding neighborhoods.

Lobby at 21c Louisville.  Photo by Magnus Lindqvist courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

CR: Why was 2006 the right time for a concept like 21c? Why do you think the press and guests have embraced it so readily?

SG: In 2006 Louisville’s Mayor was working on a revitalization master plan for downtown, which at the time had a lot of empty buildings. Laura Lee and Steve opened 21c to support these efforts, turning four empty buildings into the hotel, museum and restaurant. What they did not anticipate was that the property would become a bustling cultural center, too. We believe (and hear from our Market Metrix scores) that people are responding to the experience of staying at 21c, to that interaction of contemporary art with great architecture, comfortable rooms and genuine hospitality.

CR: Was there a subsequent rise in development around 21c in Louisville after its opening (i.e., restaurants and retail)?

SG: There absolutely is more development around 21c than when we opened in 2006, and this is a result of a number of factors, including the city’s redevelopment push and the fact that something new (21c) opened on that corner that brought people to the area to see art, eat at the restaurant, stay at the hotel and participate in our cultural programming.

We don’t keep data on the direct impact of 21c on increases in per cap room nights or tourism spending in Louisville as a whole, but anecdotally, the foot traffic on our block is markedly different, and our parking garage is full. We can point to financial success, our occupancy rate, our increasing room rates and our accolades from national travel and art experts, but the fact that 21c has opened two additional properties and announced two more is probably the biggest indicator of the concept’s success.

21c Cincinnati.  Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

CR: Gerry, has the Cincinnati location met or exceeded your expectations?

GL: The community has been incredibly welcoming, and our location couldn’t be better. There is great synergy and even more offerings for people seeking arts and culture experiences in Cincinnati.

CR: How many guests and non-guests have taken your docent-led tours thus far?

GL: The tours have been well received. In addition to our regularly-scheduled tours, we have received schools, organizations and other arts-related groups in for guided tours. Yoga with Art on Sunday also has a great following [and has been highly praised by friends of this blogger].

CR: What do you feel has been the biggest draw to 21c Cincinnati thus far – the restaurant, the museum, the rooms or the location?

GL: I think the art really draws people in and our goal is to have the hospitality and other amenities (such as the Metropole restaurant’s fantastic food) draw them back.

21c Louisville.  Photo by Magnus Lindqvist courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

CR: What is the role of museums and other cultural institutions in economic development? How can cities best capitalize on its impact?

SG: One of the examples co-founder Steve Wilson cites again and again is Bilbao. He truly believes in art as an economic driver. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave at a GLI conference:

Before 2000, Bilbao was a small, unknown industrial town in the south of Spain. It’s about the size of Louisville and also on a river. A place where young people were either on the streets, or if ambitious enough, leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

With a completely unheard of partnership between the Guggenheim Museum in California and the Basque regional government, the town returned from the dead. It’s now a city with new hotels, restaurants, taxis, train stations an a fabulous new airport…It created 4,415 jobs and an economic impact of 168 million euros a year. There isn’t anything about life that hasn’t been transformed by that museum.

So back home in Louisville, we decided we wanted to share our art collection with the public in an unconventional way. We wanted a casual, easily accessible space so people could walk in right off the street and enjoy art…or not. And we thought it could be important to our city to locate our project downtown. We wanted to help revitalize our Main Street.

As evidenced by the 21c story, increasingly, governments, private developers and concerned citizens are seeing cultural institutions and free public gathering spaces as the catalysts for urban renaissance. This philosophy is part of a concept called “creative placemaking,” which we’ll explore in our next segment of “The Business of Culture: The Impact of Museums on Economic Development.”