There are little clues that something special is happening at the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Bentonville but that is shattered the minute you walk in its doors.
With its industrial appearance one could mistake it for a modern meat packing warehouse but once inside your senses are assaulted with quirky, whimsical art.
At the grand opening Monday (Feb. 11) sculptures of three-foot high bright-green penguins greeted three-dozen people on hand. Those penguins are the official mascot of the brand 21c and 25 penguin sculptures are sprinkled throughout the property.
They blend into the décor as the eye travels from the floor to ceiling of weird and wonderful spectacles. From a six-foot tiger sculpture on the walls made out of constructions cones and duct tape to a hairy chandelier looking like it came from the attic of the Phantom of the Opera with hair extensions. Look lower and a hobbit-type creature looks ugly-cute from the front but on his back creatures morph out of orifices.
That’s just a taste of what to expect from the new hotel where the museum space is open 24-7 for all to see. There are more than 85 exhibits at a time some of which will rotate twice a year. In addition to art, the hotel represents a more than $28 million investment in the area, and is expected to employ 125.
“This hotel is a different animal, we are a museum first,” General Manager Emmanuel Gardinier said, “Our environment will be constantly changing. We will have special exhibits twice a year and special events.”
Gardinier said typically a hotel is built and nothing changes for years however with this hotel, some of the 125 employees will learn about new artists and the concept of the exhibits. They want to be able to help navigate visitors through the space.
“The beauty of it is it is an environment that will be mentally challenging,” he said.
The challenge of building the hotel started more than four years ago. The area was once home to a parking lot.
“Our goal was to design a building filled with natural light that was modern in its form but a comfortable neighbor to the history of buildings in this town. We wanted to make a building that would contribute to the liveliness of the square,” Designer Deborah Berke said.
Owners Steven Wilson and his wife Laura Lee Brown own these museum-boutique hotels in Louisville, Cincinnati and now Bentonville.
“I don’t think many people have built something new so close to the town courthouse and that’s a neat opportunity,” Wilson said, “Our company philosophy is preserving the environment, reusing old buildings and creating activity in the town square.”
Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin has been at the center of the new-found activity in Bentonville.
“The people of Bentonville have assimilated with new thoughts and culture,” he said, “There are 60 different people groups in Northwest Arkansas. With the supplier community and Wal-Mart brining people in from all over the world. ... They have brought an interesting mix of people.”
McCaslin said with Crystal Bridges Museum and now 21c Museum Hotel it dispels what people typically think of the South.
“I think people are always looking for something new and things they missed from the area they moved from. ... This is an answer to that,” he said.
21c Museum Hotel’s mission is to integrate contemporary art into daily life. Bringing works of art to Bentonville was said to be easy, possibly thanks to the reputation and audience-smashing attendance records of Crystal Bridges.
21c Museum Hotels’ Chief Curator and Director of Art Programming Alice Gray Stites said artists had no problem displaying their works in such a small town.
“We are dedicated to expanding the audience for new art and artists understand that,” she said.
Artists exhibiting include Daan Roosegaarde, Alexandre Arrechea, Slater Bradley, Serkan Ozkaya, Patricia Piccinini, Oleg Dou, Chris Doyle, Johnston Foster, Joana Vasconcelos, and Hong-Yo Ji.
“We may still be under a population of 40,000,” said Mayor McCaslin,” But we are projecting some big city behaviors with a small-town attitude. People used to move here and say I love living here but miss ... and fill in the blank. During this decade, we’ve done a lot of meet that demand.”