Luxury hotel in Durham features controversial art
Posted March 16, 2015
Durham, N.C. — The former SunTrust tower in downtown Durham was reborn Monday as a combination boutique hotel and art museum.
The 21c Museum Hotel, at 111 N. Corcoran St., features 125 hotel rooms, a restaurant and 10,500 square feet of exhibition space that will display several collections of contemporary art and can double as space for corporate meetings or wedding receptions.
"Many hotels include art for decorative purposes. 21c is a museum first," curator Alice Gray Stites said. "It is very unusual, but we feel it gives people a sense of meaning when they come and stay with us."
Durham is home to the fourth combination hotel and museum in the 21c chain. Two contemporary art collectors started 21c in Louisville, Ky., in 2006 and later added properties in Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark.
"21c can be a part of the community. It’s not just for the guests. We open our doors to the public," Stites said. "We believe contemporary art engages people in a way that drives us into discussions about a whole range of things. It brings people together."
The initial exhibition in Durham focuses on pop culture and includes a piece that depicts President Barack Obama as Batman villain "Joker," another that depicts former President George W. Bush as Adolf Hitler and a series of busts of Osama bin Laden.
At least one guest at the grand opening was offended by the way Obama was portrayed in the gallery.
"Those works that we have here on display, most all of the works, will have someone stop and think about something differently and start that dialog," General Manager Gerry Link said. "If that's the case, then the art is doing exactly what the purpose of art is."
Marine reservist John Mangum, who did plumbing work at the site, was particularly bothered by the Bin Laden statues.
"He's basically liable for thousands of deaths in America, which is one of the reasons I joined up to put a stop to it," Mangum said. "To me, it's just disrespectful.
"I just don’t think they should have things that strike controversy like that if they are trying to have a good image in downtown Durham," he continued.
21c officials informed Durham officials about the potential controversy some works might generate, adding that similar worries about some of the art in the Cincinnati property when it opened proved unfounded.
"Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve caused a stir. But we’re about pleasure, about meeting the needs of the community," 21c co-founder and Chief Executive Steve Wilson said.
"An artist I admire said recently art is an easy place to start difficult conversations, and sometimes those are the ones we need to have," Stites said.