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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And when you go to see art at a museum, you don't expect to be able to take a shower or sleep there. In Louisville, Kentucky, there is such a place where you can do all of that. It's an art hotel called 21c. NPR's Elizabeth Blair paid a visit.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Sculptures, paintings, interactive video installations - there is original art everywhere in 21c - even the bathrooms. One of the first pieces you notice when you walk in is on the floor. It's a film of a couple, in bed, under the covers, sleeping, right there where you check in.

Mr. STEVE WILSON (Owner, Hotel 21c): Sometimes, I joke to people that are watching, and say that's you know, room 322. If, you'd like to rent it, it's only a slightly larger fee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: That's Steve Wilson. He and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, opened 21c about three years ago. They've been buying contemporary art from around the world for a long time and wanted a place to show their collection. This being a hotel, now anyone can see it 24/7, even if they're not staying here.

Mr. WILSON: I love doing this, because it's so unlike a traditional museum. It's so accessible. And that's what contemporary art, to me, should be all about.

BLAIR: But, like a museum, 21c has a permanent collection, as well as rotating exhibitions, and there's a full time museum director. Even the competition across town is intrigued. The Speed Museum is Kentucky's oldest and largest art museum. The director there, Charles Venable, is even a little jealous. Visitors to his museum can't sip a latte while they look at art, like they can at 21c.

Mr. CHARLES VENABLE (Director, Speed Art Museum): Because it is commercial in a way that they combine all of those things from a restaurant, to a bar, to 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.

BLAIR: Some of the art at 21c is quite challenging. Right now, there's a show called "All's Fair In Art and War." It includes a small replica of a mosque made out of bullets and shotgun shells, a large American flag made out of 18,000 tiny toy soldiers, and a mesmerizing video of a soldier who lost his forearms. It's simple film of him washing his face. Now, Steve Wilson knows this might not be the kind of thing people want to see first thing in the morning in their hotel lobby.

Mr. WILSON: Some travelers want to stay at the Marriot every single time, because they have their points, and they know exactly what they're going to get, and they like that. And then there are travelers who travel so much they really want a different experience.

BLAIR: And that is 21c's target audience. Wilson and his wife Laura Lee Brown, are very involved in the revitalization of downtown Louisville, and 21c is a major part of that effort. They also have the means to take all this on. Laura Lee is a member of the family that co-founded Brown-Forman, one of the largest liquor and wine companies in the world. Wilson says 21c was about a $30 million investment, and that doesn't include the value of the art. But for Wilson and Brown, this is not just a hobby, they want to make a profit, and Wilson says they are.

Mr. WILSON: We obviously had lots of help to do this and a lot of advisers, we did market studies. And there was really nothing that said this will be very successful, so it was a risky thing to do. But now we are going in our third year, and occupancy is out the ceiling.

BLAIR: Like most hotels, rates at 21c vary. Right now, rooms begin at $150 a night. In the spring, the rates bump up to over $200. Steve Brown and Laura Lee Wilson are looking to expand to other cities, like Chicago and Cincinnati. There's already a 21c being built in Austin, Texas.

The art hotel concept is not new. For a while, it was a big trend in central Europe. And there are a handful of art hotels in the U.S., but mainly in large cities. Brown and Wilson are specifically looking to develop in mid-size cities. As for their prospects, Jan Freitag, a vice president at the travel industry research firm STR Global, says because the founders of 21c have private capital, they could do well.

Mr. JAN FREITAG (Vice President, STR Global): With every downturn, there's opportunity. If they're able to move into new markets now, and build now, and be ready for the customer in 2010, then they'll be the first ones, the first new open property as the economy recovers.

BLAIR: And any new properties will include something that has worked really well in the lobby of the 21c in Louisville, an interactive installation by Camille Utterbach. On a huge white screen, different colored letters look like they're raining down from the sky, but it's also a mirror, and the letters tumble around your image.

Mr. WILSON: As I'm talking to you I'm holding my arm out, and so the letters are beginning to rest on my arm, like snowflakes. We have a great number of people who just stand here and play with this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: And if you play with it long enough, you might get so tired, you'll need a room. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

See some of the art at 21c on our website, npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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