21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas:
boutique hotel, contemporary art museum and restaurant
(Disclosure: I visited the hotel as part of a post-conference press trip following the 2018 North American Travel Journalists Association conference in Branson, Missouri. Opinions and impressions, as always, are my own.)
A boutique hotel that is also a contemporary art museum and features a chef-driven restaurant highlighting local ingredients would be a unique find anywhere in the world. It was certainly a surprise to discover one in Bentonville, Arkansas in the middle of the Ozarks. The Bentonville 21c Museum Hotel is a modern chic space containing unusual and eye-catching works of art.
Bentonville is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Walmart retail empire. Founder Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store can still be seen at the Walmart Museum in downtown Bentonville. Since the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011, the city is also gaining a reputation for art.
The Making Change art installation in front of the hotel is a Fleetwood Cadillac limousine covered with nickels, dimes and pennies. The piece was created in 2015. The car was built in 1962, the same year the Walmart company was founded. The inspiration for the coin motif comes from the original Walton Five and Dime. On the placard beside the car, artist Monica Mahoney say this about the piece, “Because Walmart influences pricing on a national scale, the company saves every household $952 annually – the same dollar amount represented by the coins on this limousine.”
The Bentonville hotel is one of seven 21c Museum Hotels. In 2006, contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson opened the first hotel in Louisville, Kentucky in a redesigned 19th century tobacco and Bourbon warehouse. Believing art to be a vital part of everyday life and an agent for positive change, they wanted to see it coexist harmoniously with commerce. They never intended to open more than one hotel, but interest in bringing the concept to other locations led to the formation of a corporation to develop and manage additional hotels and properties. Today there are also 21c Museum hotels in Cincinnati OH, Durham NC, Lexingon KY, Nashville TN, and Oklahoma City, OK. Additional hotels are planned to open in Kansas City MO in the summer of 2018 and in Des Moines IA in 2021.
21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville opened in 2013. It has over 12,000 square feet of exhibition space integrated into all areas of the property from outdoor art to pieces in the lobby, hallways, alcoves and rooms to exhibits on guest room floors. Exhibitions rotate and change frequently. The museum is free to visit and open every day. Guided docent tours are available on Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 pm.
The Labor and Materials exhibition was on when I visited. The piece in the above photograph is part of Lina Puerta’s series, From Field to Table: Seven Tapestries Honoring Latino Farm Workers from the American South. The pieces, made with various textiles, sequins, feathers, fur, and gouache, portray the people who work in labour intensive crops.
Chen Lei’s sculpture of a life-size polar bear and a small child connecting in a gravity-defying kiss is an allegory for the relationship between the natural world and the human race.
The restaurants in each of the hotels are unique with personalities shaped by the chef and the location. The unifying trait is a commitment to locally sourced food and roots within the local community. The executive chef at The Hive restaurant at Bentonville’s 21c is Matthew McClure, an Arkansas native and James Beard Best Chef semifinalist. The menu relies heavily on local ingredients and has been described as “refined country cooking” or “high south cuisine.”
I had lunch at The Hive. My lunch consisted of Spring Pea Soup with crème fraiche and crispy ham followed by Home Made Campanelle Pasta with sweet pea salsa verde and fennel. Because of my Canadian background, when I hear “pea soup” I think of French Canadian pea soup made with split peas. I was, therefore, surprised at my first look and taste of Spring Pea Soup, made from green garden peas. But it was delicious and reminded me of the great taste of fresh peas in the summer. The pasta was equally delicious.
The décor of The Hive is a bit of an art piece on its own. It was designed by Deborah Berke Partners to be a communal gathering place. Installed throughout the restaurant is a site-specific art installation, BuzzKill, by Nova Scotia-based artist Johnston Foster. It displays honeycombs, vines and bees among other objects. According to the information on the 21c website it is meant to reference folklore and fauna of Bentonville and Northern Arkansas and explore the environmental crisis currently facing the honeybee.
I did not stay at the hotel nor did I see any of the rooms, but based on photographs on the hotel’s website they are spacious with large windows and custom-designed furniture with clean lines.
The green penguin in the photograph at the top of this post is a symbol of Bentonville 21c. Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson purchased Cracking Art Group’s Red Penguins sculptures after seeing them installed around Louisville in 2005 and placed them on exhibit at their Louisville hotel. They were so popular with visitors that the couple kept them on permanent exhibition. Each 21c Museum Hotel has its own flock of penguins, with different colours for each hotel.
The combination of hotel and contemporary art museum along with the connection to local culture make 21c Museum Hotels a unique experience. I would certainly consider staying at one when visiting a city where they are located. Even if not an overnight guest of the hotel, I would make an effort to visit the museum and the restaurant.
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