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Luxury hotel in Durham features controversial art

Posted March 16, 2015

— 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.


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  • Collin McLoud Mar 17, 2015
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    I made a masterpiece out of toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners. I wonder if I can display my art there?

  • Phil Larson Mar 16, 2015
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    I know, that Mona Lisa chick is so passé too. Art endures whether it's fits your taste or not.

  • Mark Farmer Mar 16, 2015
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    it don't look like art to me.

  • Colin Burch III Mar 16, 2015
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    Do they have any 'art' from older children, say middle school?

  • Phil Larson Mar 16, 2015
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    Durhams a cool town with some NCs best places to eat. The DPAC is one of the best venues in the country.

  • Al Smith Mar 16, 2015
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    Yeah, but the point still remains, who wants to stay in a "luxury" hotel in Durham? Hell, who wants to stay in a luxury hotel anywhere in RTP?

  • Lisa Menendez Mar 16, 2015
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    Why don't people get a life... If you don't like you have the option not to stay there. Really annoying how everyone thinks the world revolves around what they think and feel.

  • Roy Hinkley Mar 16, 2015
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    I guess only time will tell. This isn't the company's first hotel, so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • Clovis Sangrail Mar 16, 2015
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    "While both pictures are legal, they are crass."What strikes me is how utterly passe they are. Even as an avatar both are at least 6 years out of date. Now they are supposed to be artwork? Even the Internet has moved on.

    Trotting these out as "controversial" "artworks" is really kind of, well pitiful. The Christopher Walken is at least something, but even that kind of comes off as a joke that is a decade too late.

  • Ginger Lynn Mar 16, 2015
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    I don't think there is a market for such a high end hotel downtown. I have lived in Durham since 1972 and worked downtown since the late 80's. I think with the OMNI, and the new Hilton Garden Inn, and DoubleTree up by east campus there are plenty of hotel options. This is a very expensive, risky undertaking. My opinion has nothing to do with the art. That actually may give it some well needed press.