21C Museum Hotel shakes off Cincinnati's conservative image

CINCINNATI - Cutting ribbons is nothing new to Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory.   

But the perfunctory ceremony outside the 21C Museum Hotel opened up a lot more than just another place to sleep. It just could have cut the Queen City's conservative arts past from its future.

"I'm not out to offend," said 21C Museum Hotel co-founder and general manager Steve Wilson, "but I do like to provoke thought."

Wilson's brainchild of marrying an upscale hotel with a contemporary art museum will undoubtedly do that.

As guests check in, they may wander the lobby decorated with nude sculptures. In the restaurant, a mural of curious children striping off their clothes. One topless little girl allows a boy to peek inside her underwear, as the others gawk.

Wilson says the inspiration for his collection came from growing up on a farm.

"We didn't talk about sex," Wilson said. "Racism was evident, but it really wasn't talked about. So these kinds of emotions and situations that we're living with in our world today are the kinds of things that we like to put on the wall."

To be sure, 21C isn't all about sex.

Sea turtle sculptures adorn one wall, a three-story fabric piece glows by night.

But eroticism wasn't the only thing that Robert Maplethorpe's "A Perfect Moment" brought to Cincinnati in 1990.

That exhibit saw police march into the Contemporary Art Center and close it down. "The Perfect Moment" mixed homo-erotic images with still life.

The center's director, Dennis Barrie was arrested for pandering obscenity.

A jury found him not guilty, but the message of the day had been sent: Arts organizations became fearful of bringing provocative works to town.

Flash forward to 2012 as the mayor celebrated the grand opening.

"The big news of the day is we're opening up 21C Hotel in Cincinnati," Mallory said to an eager crowd. "This is a fantastic institution."

Steve Wilson understands the gamble, but is ready to shake up Cincinnati sensibilities.

"It's an exciting adventure, I hope," he said.

The 21C resides in the renovated site of the century-old Metropole Hotel. It sports 156 rooms, a bar, restaurant, spa and rooftop patio.

It will employ 160 staff members.

The museum is open 24/7 and is free.

One oddity of the collection that connects the new with the old: A collection of toy camels encased in glass near the entrance is from the building managers of the Metropole.

They kept the collection in the original hotel's penthouse, even as the old building decayed.

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