Alice Gray Stites is the perfect blend of cerebral and creative. As the chief curator and director of art programming at all of the 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville, Lexington, Durham, NC, and Bentonville, AR, she is on the forefront of a new modern museum model, combining art and commerce, with accessibility to everyone. Her keen eye and bottomless curiosity help her juggle the myriad collections, exhibitions and artists she coordinates. With all that she sees and experiences in her travels, you should see her travel bucket list and her reading list. Meet today’s FACE of Louisville, Alice Gray Stites.
You were a curator at the Speed Art Museum. Now you are the curator for all 21c Museum Hotels. What’s the biggest difference in these jobs?
Well, that’s been a long journey. The wide range of projects I worked on for Art Without Walls (the temporary public art initiative launched by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson) provided good preparation for the ever-changing and flexible nature of my current role. 21c is North America’s first multivenue museum dedicated solely to the art of today. Installations and exhibitions are curated for multiple spaces in different cities, so the pace and scope of projects is very exciting.
Working closely with living artists is especially inspiring, as is collaborating with passionate colleagues in 21c’s hotel department and restaurants. 21c’s integral mission to pursue and present the very best in art, food and hospitality has transformed my perception of what a contemporary cultural institution can become.
How is this venue (meaning all 21c Museum Hotels) the new model in the museum world?
21c is successfully combining culture and commerce, and providing accessibility to art for a growing public, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The multivenue structure of the museum is unprecedented, and our locations unexpected — yes, great art can and should be seen beyond coastal metropolitan areas! Admission to the exhibitions, as well as to all cultural events, is always free, which further expands the audience. Visitors feel free to wander in and enjoy the art in an engaged or a peripheral way; there is no virtual velvet rope of perceived exclusivity. Here is how author and co-founder of the Moving Image art fair, Edward Winkelman, recently responded to Holland Cotter’s New York Times article calling for new museum models:
“ … what I experienced overwhelmingly supports the 21c vision as an important alternative for the future. The fact that the entire enterprise is less than a decade old, that its founders are out there looking at contemporary art constantly, and that their museum director is that rarest of breeds in the art world lately — a true believer — make 21c a model to study and/or copy, in my opinion.”
What is the hardest part of your job? The easiest?
The logistics can be daunting; figuring out which exhibit is going where — and when and how — can feel like solving a Rubik’s Cube. Fortunately, our talented, dedicated team is energized by creative problem-solving. And that is the easiest part of my job — sharing challenges with people who are excited about expanding access to art through innovative initiatives.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
Atypical is typical! Last week, I went to New York to attend a museum opening for an artist 21c is featuring in an upcoming exhibition, and to meet with a design studio about a new commission; on Wednesday, I was on-site in Lexington; Thursday and Friday, I was mostly at my desk, catching up on emails, meeting with colleagues and preparing for an exhibition opening at 21c Louisville, where we celebrated Brazilian artist Albano Afonso.
Who are your mentors and what advice do you treasure?
A close family friend introduced me to the contemporary art world when I was in my teens, taking me to an early screening of Christo’s Running Fence and to gallery openings in Soho. I was hooked.
For wit and wisdom, I revisit artist Stefan Sagmeister’s 2007 book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far: “Worrying solves nothing.” “Trying to look good limits my life.” “Low expectations are a good strategy.”
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my _____.
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
At 21c, at Louisville Collegiate School’s athletic fields (go Titans and Amazons!), at Standiford Field
What’s your bucket list travel destination?
Iceland, Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Morocco, Croatia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, more — of course! Right now, I can’t wait for our family trip to London.
Favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Louisville has so much to offer these days. Actors Theatre, Author Forum, lectures at the University of Louisville, concerts at Iroquois Park and more. Two events I can’t imagine missing are Derby and IdeaFestival — Louisville embodies and celebrates both tradition and innovation, sports and creativity, leisure and learning!
Night owl or early bird? What do you do during that quiet time?
During the week, I am up early and often annoy my children by talking too much in the morning. In the spring and summer, I enjoy watching the late evening light fade.
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Franzen’s unflinching illumination of American culture is brave, disturbing, sad, beautifully crafted and utterly human. I haven’t yet recovered from reading Freedom, but am now caught up in his newest novel.
Ada Limon, Bright Dead Things. Last spring, my daughter sent me a copy of one of Limon’s poems that was printed in the New Yorker. Limon teaches at the University of Kentucky, so I am hoping to meet her. Her journey as a Kentucky transplant resonates with mine, and she writes with — and about — truth and beauty.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby remains at the top of my reread pile; I treasure this book. Part memoir, part travelogue, part psychological-historical meditation, Solnit’s writing provides comfort, provocation and inspiration on every page.
Lightning Round! Give us your:
- Candy or junk food splurge: Levain bread from Blue Dog Bakery, generously drizzled with olive oil
- Guilty pleasure music: “The Voice” — I don’t actually feel guilty about enjoying this television series.
- Tearjerker movie pick: Boyhood — The main character is the same age as my oldest child.
- Cartoon alter-ego: My bitmoji avatar. You can download the app from iTunes.
What are three of your favorite things right now?
TSA precheck, lightweight down outerwear from Uniqlo and the portable phone charger my son gave me for Christmas last year.
Thank you to Alice Gray Stites, our final FACE of 2015, and thanks to Adele Reding for her beautiful FACES photography. To see more of her work, click here.
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