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Bentonville strikes gold with 21c

I love hotels.

Old hotels and new hotels. I love to sit in their lobbies. I love to check out their restaurants. I love to take the extra shampoo and conditioner home. I love to read the online reviews.

Of all the hotels I’ve visited (consider the fact that I spent 110 nights away from Little Rock in 2008), the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville is perhaps the most unique. I was there in July 2008 for a Southern Foodways Alliance event.

Trust me when I tell you that Tuesday’s announcement that a 21c will be built in downtown Bentonville (an announcement overshadowed by that day’s Democratic runoff for the Senate) is big news for Arkansas.

We realize that Alice Walton’s construction of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is transformative. Attracting a 21c gives us an indication of the kind of people and amenities that Crystal Bridges will bring to Northwest Arkansas.

Consider the fact that the readers of Conde Nast Traveler last year voted 21c Louisville as the best hotel in the country and the sixth best hotel in the world.

Best in the country. Sixth best in the world. And one is coming to downtown Bentonville.

Sit back and think about that for a moment.

A 21c also will be built in downtown Austin and downtown Cincinnati. Funky, progressive Austin is pretty good company for a town in Benton County to keep.

“The growth of 21c Museum Hotels is something that has happened organically,” says Michael Bonadies, the president and CEO of the company that’s owned by Louisville philanthropists Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. “The success of the brand has surpassed our expectations. As a hub of global commerce and a rapidly emerging arts and entertainment destination, Bentonville is the perfect place for a 21c Museum Hotel.”

Bonadies, by the way, is an acclaimed restaurateur and author. He was a founding partner of the New York group that developed such famous restaurants as Tribeca Grill, Nobu and Rubicon. The restaurant in 21c Louisville, which is called Proof on Main, was listed by Esquire in 2006 as one of the best new restaurants in the country.

Thus we can expect there also to be a world-class restaurant in downtown Bentonville.

Steve Wilson once told the Austin American-Statesman that he’s “not very good about rules.”

“I was born in a fairly restrictive community in the Bible Belt,” he said. “I’m all about opening up the barriers and encouraging people to be creative and expressive.”

Wilson grew up on a farm at Wickliffe in far western Kentucky, just below where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill. He majored in political science at Murray State and later worked in the communications division of the Kentucky governor’s office.

He met Laura Lee Brown in 1994, and they married two and half years later. Brown’s great-grandfather founded what’s now Brown-Forman Corp., the giant liquor conglomerate that owns brands such as Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve. Brown’s father was president and CEO of the business. She grew up outside Louisville on a 400-acre property known as Sutherland.

Brown and Wilson now live on a 1,000-acre farm in Goshen, Ky., known as Woodland Farm. They raise bison there. Bison, by the way, is on the menu at Proof on Main.

Here’s how a 2006 feature on the couple in W magazine began: “In Kentucky horse country, it’s nearly impossible to discern a man’s social standing by the car in his driveway or the watch on his wrist. The region has its own set of status symbols, which, though no less powerful, aren’t obvious to the untrained eye. The type of fence that surrounds one’s thoroughbred farm matters — four horizontal slats denote more prosperity than three — as do the initials stamped on the bottom of one’s silver mint julep cups. (They indicate who was president in the year the vessel was made. Old julep cups, of course, suggest old money).

“But perhaps the most telling is the company one keeps on Derby Day, the climax of Louisville’s social swirl. On that front, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are hard to beat. This year two members of Congress, the co-founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (who is also a former governor) and three Miss Americas watched the races from the couple’s fourth-floor suite at Churchill Downs. It was a fitting entourage for Louisville’s reigning power pair, who put their guests up at their just-opened hotel downtown, treated them to dinner at their chic new restaurant and hosted them for Sunday brunch at their contemporary art-filled 19th century plantation house overlooking the Ohio River.”

Now, they’re bringing their act to Arkansas in partnership with the Walton family.

Wilson and Brown have traveled around the world to collect the art that will be displayed at 21c Bentonville. The combination of an art museum, a boutique hotel and a widely recognized restaurant is an interesting one that they’ve pulled off in Kentucky.

They only collect art by living artists. They like things that surprise and shock, including video. While standing at the lobby men’s room urinals of 21c Louisville, you look through a one-way mirror at people walking right in front of you while you’re taking care of your business.

Here’s how Elizabeth Blair described 21c Louisville in a piece for National Public Radio: “When you go to an art museum, you don’t expect to be able to take a shower or sleep there. But in Louisville, there’s a place where you can do both. It’s called 21c, and it feels a lot more like a contemporary art gallery than a hotel. … Wilson and Brown have been buying contemporary art from around the world for a long time. About three years ago, they opened 21c as a place to show their collection, Now, anyone can view the art, no matter the time of day, even if they’re not staying here. Sculptures, paintings, interactive video installations are everywhere — even in the bathrooms. … 21c has a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions and even a full-time museum director.”

Wilson said, “I love doing this because it’s so unlike a traditional museum. It’s so accessible, and that’s what to me contemporary art should be all about.”

Charles Venable, director of the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky, told NPR in late 2008: “I think what they’re doing down there is very relevant to a lot of people. Because it is commercial, they combine a restaurant, a bar, a place where you can stay — and they have great art there as well. It’s the combination of different parts of culture that make it so special, whereas older-style museums tend to parse that out in ways that don’t make it as meaningful for a lot of people.”

Rooms in Louisville begin at about $150 a night and can bump up to more than $200. 21c Louisiville has a portfolio of about 2,500 works of art.

So now Bentonville will have two great art museums. And you’ll be able to spend the night in one of them.

We’ve come far from the days when Dogpatch was considered one of this state’s top attractions.

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