Alice Gray Stites lives in Louisville, but has become a FACE of Nashville thanks to her work as Museum Director and Chief Curator for 21c Museum Hotels. She joined co-founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson at 21c in 2006 to organize 21c Louisville’s inaugural exhibition, and she served as Director of artwithoutwalls, a temporary public art organization started by Laura and Steve, until joining the 21c team full-time in 2011. Alice’s work — and the art she chooses —reflects 21c’s commitment to expanding access to thought-provoking contemporary art and supporting local artists in each of the vibrant communities they join. While you might be able to meet Alice for yourself during one of her many visits to Nashville, you are more likely to get a glimpse into her mind by visiting the exhibits at 21c Museum Hotel Nashville. Today, she shares more about her work, the exhibitions and contemporary art in Nashville. Welcome Alice Gray Stites as today’s FACE of Nashville.
How does 21c Museum Hotel stand out in the museum world?
21c offers a new model as multi-venue museum that is free and open to the public 24/7. With no charge for the exhibitions or cultural events and no demarcation between exhibition and hotel space, 21c stands out as radically accessible. We strive to curate exhibitions that truly reflect the broad range of human experience and identity from all over the world, offering a radically inclusive perspective. 21c continues to grow and to expand exhibition space, which few museums have the opportunity to do consistently. When Kansas City opens this summer, 21c will have over 80,000 total square feet of exhibition space dedicated to sharing the art of our time with the public in eight cities across the U.S.
And, of course, 21c stands out because the museum is incorporated into a hospitality business; each location features a chef-driven restaurant and boutique hotel. The art is integral and integrated into both, allowing 21c to expand and redefine the museum experience.
What does your job at 21c Museum Hotel entail?
As Museum Director and Chief Curator, I oversee 21c’s multi-venue contemporary art museum. I lead a team of 18 dedicated arts professionals who organize, install and maintain the exhibitions at 21c’s seven (soon to be eight) locations and maintain the permanent collection, which is housed in Louisville. My specific duties include developing the concepts and themes of the rotating exhibitions, planning the layout of the exhibitions, writing the exhibition brochure essays, wall texts and other written materials; developing cultural programming and inviting artists to speak and perform at 21c; providing staff training and tours to the public; representing 21c in the broader art world by speaking at a range of events and attending art fairs, conferences, biennials and at university programs. Several times a year, I have the privilege of traveling with 21c co-founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson to art fairs in the U.S. and Europe. Steve and I also work together on commissioning artists to create the site-specific installations that are unique and permanent to each 21c: In 21c Nashville, we commissioned Rafael Lozano-Hemmer to create an interactive installation on the first floor, Bilateral Time Slicer Intermix, and the Experience Suites designed by Sebastiaan Bremer, Yung Jake and Adrian Grenier.
This month marks the opening of Seeing Now. What can we expect from this exhibition?
This multimedia selection of works by over two dozen artists explores what and how we see today, revealing the visible and hidden forces shaping both what the contemporary world looks like and how we consume and interpret that information — how visual and psychological perception are evolving in the 21st century. The global pervasiveness of conflict has engendered the normalization of shock and numb; wanting to look but not to see, we lose sight. As many of these artworks reveal, we are disturbed by violent, unjust or tragic incidents, yet accustomed to their regularity and may be blind to their causes and costs. Seeing Now examines instances of racial and social injustice, the degradation of the environment, the new technologies used to protect and surveil, and the proliferation and consumption of screen-based information that shapes what we see, know and understand of past and present moments, fleeting in time, lasting in impact. Featuring work by artists such as Hank Willis Thomas, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Steve Mumford, Graciela Sacco, Tim Heatherington, Ken Gonzales-Day, Travis Somerville, Paul Rucker and others, this exhibit considers — and asks viewers to consider — this quote from noted art critic John Berger: “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”
We hope you can join us on Friday, March 2, when artist and musician Paul Rucker will be speaking and performing at the opening reception.
What excites you about being part of Nashville’s art scene?
The art community in Nashville has been wonderfully welcoming and sets a high bar! The museums, university programs, galleries, alternative spaces and other innovative initiatives being created in Nashville are garnering international attention, and we are thrilled to take part in the conversations being created. Nashville is also home to a growing number of outstanding artists, whose works we are excited to discover.
What is the biggest misconception about contemporary art?
There are two, which are really the sides of a single coin: that artists intentionally make work that is inscrutable and that “your kid could do that.” Compelling contemporary art that illuminates current conditions and the human experience is complex but articulate. No matter how simple the material process of making an art object may appear to be, the concept behind the craft is never child’s play; contemporary art is not intended to be facile or entertaining, but rather a source for inspiration and connection with new images, new ideas, new experiences that expand our understanding of the world in and extend our empathy for others.
During your visits to Nashville, what are your favorite stops to make?
Well, I admit my first stop is Gray & Dudley because I love Levon Wallace’s cooking so much! Leaving campus, I always want to visit the Frist and some of the excellent local galleries. This summer I will schedule at least a couple of visits to Cheekwood, where an exhibition of artworks by Cracking Art Group will be installed — they are the artists who created the red and teal penguins! I am a fan of writer Ann Patchett, so a stop at Parnassus Books is always a joy. If friends or visiting artists are in town, it’s fun to give them a taste of local nightlife at Robert’s Western World on Broadway.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?
“We are responsible for the lives we change … Believe in yourself. Go ahead. See where it gets you.” These are verses from a poem written by Rita Dove, Virginia state poet laureate. I heard these read at a bicentennial celebration last fall at the University of Virginia, and they rang poignant and beautiful and true for me on many levels. Applying this advice will be the work of a lifetime.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Sam Shephard’s posthumous memoir, Spy of the First Person, What Happened by Hillary Clinton, the first volume of a biography on artist and poet Etel Adnan entitled to look at the sea is to become what one is, and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which resides there permanently because I regularly re-read passages from that book.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
A pair of black patent Nike trainers that have a running shoe interior. They can be worn from office to construction site to evening events or on a long walk in the city or countryside. Unfortunately, the model was discontinued a few years ago. My current pair were found on eBay.
The iPhone weather app, because every morning I like to check on what the weather is going to be in cities where there are people I love; knowing if it is hot or cold, sunny or stormy, makes me feel more connected to them.
After suffering a massive heart attack at the age of 32, Cody Brummet faced a long road to recovery. We’re thrilled to feature Cody as our newest FACE of TriStar. Click here to read his inspiring story.