Serkan Ozkaya's clear orb dominates the lobby of 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis.

Meet the Curator: Alice Gray Stites of 21c Museum Hotels

Wednesday December 27, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Pushing the boundaries of the museum and hotel worlds, 21c Museum Hotels has become a catalyst for inspiration, creativity and pride within the St. Louis community.

Housed in the 96-year-old, 10-story, Renaissance Revival-style YMCA building at 1528 Locust St., 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis spans almost 200,000 square feet, including approximately 14,000 square feet of exhibition space featuring site-specific installations and rotating thematic exhibitions, along with 173 rooms adorned with exclusive artworks from Missouri-based artists.

Here, every detail – from the stitching on the mid-century modern furniture to the color of the iconic Cracking Art penguins – sparks conversation and encourages connection.

An iconic orange Cracking Art penguin poses in front of Serkan Ozkaya's clear orb in the lobby of 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis.
Artwork pictured: Cracking Art, Penguin, 2023; Serkan Ozkaya, O, 2023 | Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis

21c Museum Hotels was founded by contemporary art collectors and preservationists Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, and their collection, which fills the galleries at the 21c properties, includes paintings, large-scale sculptures, photographs and videos representing countries around the world.

“We want everyone who walks through the door to feel welcomed and inspired,” Alice Gray Stites, museum director and chief curator of 21c Museum Hotels, says. “We want everyone to see themselves and their cultures represented as well as to discover new faces and places with which they’re unfamiliar.

“We’re lucky that our founders are still active in selecting and acquiring works,” she continues. “Their curiosity guides them – curiosity about the ways in which people live and work and play across the globe. Their collection is about the breadth of human experiences both lived and imagined. That diversity of voices and visions defines the art that we present.”

For the permanent collection at 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis, Gray Stites commissioned site-specific installations that respond to the past, present and future of the building, its architecture and its uses.

As you enter the building, Serkan Ozkaya’s O draws you into the lobby. The eight-foot-wide plexiglass orb filled with 1,800 gallons of distilled water is mesmerizing. Reflecting the space around it, including the original coffered ceiling, it’s pure magic.

“Serkan is a conceptual artist who uses seemingly simple concepts like a giant, transparent orb to distill complex visual perceptions,” Gray Stites explains. “Serkan brings together interesting influences and ideas in artworks that engage people in both playful and meaningful ways. O is a case in point: Guests have been interacting with the sculpture more than any other piece that we’ve installed.”

“St. Louis has such a strong, vibrant art community, and we’re making a major commitment to showcasing that to our guests.”

– Alice Gray Stites

The lobbies of 21c Museum Hotels usually display pieces from the current exhibition, but that isn’t the case in St. Louis due to the lobby’s open floor plan. When Gray Stites and her team realized that the first floor wouldn’t have a lot of exhibition space, they decided to create a strong visual allure to encourage people to go upstairs and explore the main exhibition.

Enter The Way Out West.

The multimedia installation swirls through the grand staircase, transporting you to a different realm that eventually leads to the art galleries on the second floor.

Fallen Fruit, a California-based artist duo, conducted extensive research about St. Louis, and its vibrant, intricate installation references the geographical, horticultural, social and political history of the region. “There are thousands of stories embedded in the walls and floors of that single staircase,” Gray Stites says. “It’s absolutely fascinating.”

In her curatorial approach to inaugural exhibitions at 21c Museum Hotels, Gray Stites considers what’s happening in the world but also the region. “To say that we live in a rapidly changing world is an understatement,” she says. “So, we take into account what’s shaping people’s experiences of the world right now.

“All but one of 21c’s buildings are historic renovations,” she continues, “and the process of transforming something from the past into a place that’s rooted in the present but looking toward the future also shapes the perspective that we’re expressing through the exhibition.”

On view until mid-June, the current exhibition at 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis explores the use of historical sources in contemporary art, highlighting how the past can clarify the present and reimagine the future. The more than 75 pieces in the exhibition come from well-known and emerging artists who work in a variety of mediums.

“It’s not about having an all-star lineup,” Gray Stites explains. “We want to put works together in exhibitions that create compelling connections and inspire real conversations.”

Ebony G. Patterson's peacock combines sculpture and textile.
Artwork featured: Ebony G. Patterson, …when the land is in plumage, 2020 | Photo by Cassidy Hintz

Artists range from Isaac Julien to Kehinde Wiley to Ebony Patterson, whose scintillating sculpture titled …when the land is in plumage steals the show. Combining sculpture and textile, the recent work features a peacock made with white ceramic flowers that’s looking back at its exquisite train.

“Ebony is known for her textile works that recall aestheticized Colonial gardens, but when you look closer – past the sequined flowers, glittery leaves and elegant jewelry – there’s so much more happening,” Gray Stites says. “The garden becomes a place of beauty and decay, death and birth. Through her approach, Ebony pushes us to think about what’s hidden behind the aestheticized surfaces of historical images that we’ve consumed through art history.

“Upon further inspection of the peacock, you’ll also see color beneath the white flowers,” she continues. “It’s about to molt; it’s about to transform. Ebony has positioned it so that it’s looking back because transformation starts with the examination of what came before.”

In the same gallery, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA’s headless sculpture begs the question: Who is this woman?

“Yinka Shonibare CBE RA digs into yesterday to reveal where we are today, unpacking fallacies of art history along the way,” Gray Stites says, “and he intentionally removes facial identities from his figures. The Marquise du Châtelet comes from his body of work about the Age of Enlightenment and depicts Émilie du Châtelet, a famous French mathematician, whom Voltaire praised for being the most brilliant mathematician of her day despite her handicap, which was, of course, being a woman.”

Throughout the five galleries, 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis follows museum best practices in terms of curation, installation, protection and education, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another art gallery that stays open to the public 24/7. Guests can also walk around with a drink from the first-floor bar – we’ll cheers to that!

The suites at 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis have artworks from Missouri-based artists.
Artwork pictured: Brandon Forrest Frederick, Some Kinda Portal | Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel St. Louis

The Elevate at 21c program guarantees that local and regional artists have pieces in the galleries, as well. “It’s really important for people who stay at 21c Museum Hotels to get a sense of the authentic culture of the city and the art being produced there,” Gray Stites says. “St. Louis has such a strong, vibrant art community, and we’re making a major commitment to showcasing that to our guests.”

In the guest rooms, artwork by Carmon Colangelo, a mixed-media artist and the dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, adorns the walls, while the guest suites boast works by Missouri-based artists Collin Elliott, Brandon Forrest Frederick, Bethanie Irons and La Vispera.

“We choose pieces that enhance the design but also offer a moment of introspection and reflection,” Gray Stites says. “The artworks might raise questions, making your experience in the rooms enjoyable, interesting and inspiring.”

21c Museum Hotel St. Louis also has a roster of free events and programs that are open to the public. From artist lectures to poetry readings and film screenings to musical performances, there’s always something to do.

“St. Louis has a history of making art and ideas accessible to the public,” Gray Stites enthuses. “Between the Contemporary Art Museum St. LouisPulitzer Arts FoundationSaint Louis Art Museum and St. Louis Public Library – Central Library, there’s a multitude of places where people can see, share and connect ideas. That nurtures an engaged citizenry.”