Contemporary art fans headed to the Windy City can do no better than book a stay at the 21c Museum Hotel in the River North neighborhood, 55 East Ontario Street, Chicago, Illinois. In a location convenient for both business and leisure travel, this 21c Hotel is just one block west of Michigan Avenue’s famed shopping district, the Magnificent Mile.
Lots of dining choices
You don’t even have to cross a street to have a wide choice of eateries while staying at the 21c Museum Hotel. On the same block are Su Casa, Pizzeria Due, Steak 48, Shake Shack, and, in the hotel, the elegant seafood restaurant Lure Fishbar. For me? After a long drive to Chicago, I craved a ShackBurger, crinkle cut fries, and one of the spring specials at Shake Shack, the Hibiscus Lychee Punch. Across Ontario from the front door of the hotel is a Trader Joe’s, with grab & go options.
The hotel’s museum manager, Juli Lowe, told me that this 21c — like the other eight properties in this Accor Hotels brand, is “an art museum with beds”. The artwork isn’t an afterthought here: it’s the main event. We talked while I toured the in-progress installation of the hotel’s latest exhibit, “Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art“, which opened March 24, 2022 (hotel exhibitions remain in place for about a year).
“About 90% of each of our exhibits comes from the vast collection of contemporary art from the founders of 21c, with the remainder on loan from local museums,” Lowe said. This show has more than 90 objects by 55 different artists.
Exhibit Begins in Lobby of Museum Hotel
My first encounter with the exhibition came in the lobby (the show spans two floors of the hotel). To the left of the check-in desk is a 2018 collage by April Bey titled “Power Girl (Incarcerated Queen)”. A few steps in front is the over-the-top “Hustle Coat” by Nick Cave, a classic trench coat lined with rows of knock-off jewelry and watches as though offered by a street vendor.
The exhibition notes, penned by Alice Gray Stites, museum director and chief curator, explain, “Superheroes and celebrities, totems and toys: the imagery of manufactured fantasy is reframed in the visual language of historical iconography in this multi-media exploration of popular culture today.”
There are 297 guestrooms in the hotel, including 106 suites. The palette is neutral — grays and tan, designed by New York architectural firm Deborah Berke Partners as a respite from all the art and activity. There’s free Wi-Fi throughout the 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, plus a 24-Hour fitness center and a business center. Self-parking is available in the enclosed garage behind the hotel.
When not in use for private events, the more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space becomes part of the museum gallery.
Oh — and about those ubiquitous penguins. My first stay in a 21c Museum Hotel was at the original in Louisville, Kentucky, and the mascots were red. In Chicago, they’re evergreen. Lowe said that each hotel has penguins of a particular color (Bentonville’s, for example, are a kelly green, and Oklahoma City’s are purple).
The 21c Museum Hotel was founded by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, contemporary art collectors and preservationists. Their hotels are in rehabilitated, historic, commercial buildings. The art exhibitions in each hotel are drawn from their extensive collection as the couple retains a stake in the company. Residents of Goshen, Kentucky (an exurb of Louisville), in 2016 they were awarded the 38th annual Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation Historic Preservation Award for “Kentucky’s most distinguished celebration of historic preservation excellence”.
Museum is open to the public
You don’t have to be a hotel guest to see the exhibit. It’s open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Special events, such as curator-led tours, are also open to the public.
Other 21c Museum Hotels are located in Louisville, Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Kansas City. In development are 21c hotels in St. Louis and Des Moines. Accor brands cover a wide range. 21c Museum Hotels are in the London-based Ennismore Collection, acquired two years ago by Accor. The corporation, headquartered in France, says that with 5,200 hotels in 110 countries, it offers the largest brand portfolio in the hotel industry. Names you’ll recognize among its 40 hotel brands include Fairmont, Sofitel, Ibis, and Pullman.
(Text and some photos by Susan McKee, who was a guest of the hotel — which also supplied some of the photos)