Julius Karash on Business & the Arts: Hotel Savoy Renovation Bodes Well for KC Arts Scene

The Hotel Savoy, a venerable but dormant downtown landmark, is preparing to join the ranks of Kansas City’s percolating contemporary arts scene.

Work was expected to begin by press time on the redevelopment of the Savoy, located at 219 W. Ninth St., into a boutique 21c Museum Hotel. Louisville-based 21c, which acquired the Savoy in December 2014 with Kansas City investment partner Eric Holtze, creates hotels that are enmeshed in art. It has redeveloped old buildings into hotels in Louisville, Cincinnati, Durham, Lexington and Oklahoma City, and is working on a similar project in Nashville. The company built a new hotel in Bentonville, Ark.

The $48 million renovation of the Savoy, slated for completion in 2018, will breathe new art-infused life into the hotel that was built in phases between 1888 and the early 1900s. The hotel and its elegant Savoy Grill served patrons such as Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and Harry Truman.

In a 1977 book entitled “Kansas City A Place in Time,” the Landmarks Commission of Kansas City characterized the Savoy as “representative of a past period of elegance. The Neo-Classic design features stylized leaded windows designed by Frank Anderson, representing an exceptional and rare example of the Art Nouveau influence in America.”

21c Museum Hotels was founded by preservationists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. They opened the first 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, their home town, in 2006.

“The mission is to share thought-provoking, interesting contemporary art from all over the world, in all different media, from artists who are quite famous and artists who are just emerging on to the art stage,” said Alice Gray Stites, 21c museum director and chief curator.

Stites said 21c thinks of itself as a “multi-venue museum,” with art spread among its different hotel locations. Art is exhibited throughout the public spaces of 21c Hotels, as well as in the guest rooms. Art can even be found on the exterior of the buildings and on the sidewalk.

Each property features an average of 10,000 square feet of public exhibition space, open to the public free of charge. Exhibitions change about twice a year at each property. Exhibitions are organized primarily from the 21c collection, which includes painting, sculpture, installation, photography, film, performance, video and digital art.

Examples of recent exhibitions include “Hybridity: The Supernatural” in Lexington; “Labor and Materials” in Oklahoma City; and “Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” in Bentonville.

In March, “Conde Nast Traveler” described 21c hotels as an “art force to be reckoned with” and “freeing for their visitors, whether they simply want a stiff cocktail and a free gallery visit, or an entire weekend surrounded by sexually, politically, and socially charged artwork in every single room.”

Stites said she is excited about 21c coming to Kansas City, “because you have such a vibrant art scene and wonderful museums. The Art Institute does such a great job, and there are so many wonderful artists there.”

Besides major exhibitions, Stites said 21c also presents smaller art installations that change more frequently, “with works by local and regional artists. When we renovate buildings there is space on each of the guest room floors that is dedicated to the work of local artists. It exposes the work of local artists to out-of-town visitors. We often borrow their work for a traveling exhibition, and in some cases work with them on a bigger scale.”

21c’s plans for the Savoy are generating a local buzz among local art advocates such as Bruce Hartman, executive director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College.

Hartman said he is familiar with the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. “It’s extraordinary,” he said. “The art is everywhere. And they have no fear of cutting-edge contemporary art. I think that ultimately, there’s the potential for the 21c Hotel at the old Savoy to become a major contemporary art center in downtown Kansas City.”

Sherry Leedy, owner of Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in the Crossroads area, said friends have told her great things about 21c Museum Hotels. “It’s going to be a positive addition to an already thriving Kansas City art community,” she said.

Leedy added that she hopes the transformed Kansas City hotel will incorporate works from “some of the fantastic artists who call Kansas City home.”

Megan Crigger, director of creative services in Kansas City’s Office of Culture and Creative Services, said 21c’s plans bode well for the Kansas City arts community, tourism and historic preservation.

“Their decision to come to Kansas City is one of many signs that the world is watching Kansas City and all that is happening in innovation in the arts and the livability of our city for our creatives, and how they provide value to our residents and tourists.”

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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