I write a series called “Why I’m the Luckiest Person on the Planet.” Near the top of the list is that I’m a travel writer. I get paid to visit really cool places. Usually those places involve airlines and passports.
But not always. I recently discovered a really cool destination that’s a short three and a half-hour drive from my home: 21C Art Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas.
I KNOW! I was as surprised as you are. So unwind that knot in your knickers and listen up.
Here are 21 reasons why Bentonville’s 21C is deserving of every art pilgrim:
1. This 104-room boutique hotel is a populist’s rallying cry. Even though 21C is by far the most unique and chic property in this pint-size burg of 36,000, it’s actually an art museum that’s completely free and open night or day to anyone and everyone. The hotel’s bedrooms, of course, are private, but most of its 30,000 square feet is alive and pulsing with contemporary art, all of which is there to be enjoyed by visitors from all income brackets.
2. It sits on “best of” lists next to hotels in New York, Paris, London and other top-flight cities. Name a travel magazine (from Conde Nast to Travel+Leisure) and every last one of them has singled out this provocative hotel.
3. 21C has original contemporary art everywhere—even in the bathrooms and in the fitness center where Fat Bat, a hilarious obese Batman, flies over the ellipticals.
4. Its prices raise eyebrows. Can a hotel this awesome really be this reasonable? Even though this Deborah Berke-designed hotel deserves every list it has made and every elbow it has rubbed since its opening February 2013, its daily rack rate is one-fourth to one-tenth of the price of its peers. I like that in a hotel.
5. It’s within walking distance of the 120-wooded acres of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the first major-and I do mean major–art museum to open in the United States in 40 years. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for all my past disparagement of Wal-Mart. I stand my ground that global domination is never a worthy goal. However, when you use your fortune, as Alice Walton appears to be doing with her $26 billion, to open a truly remarkable, Moshe Safdie-designed museum, you deserve a little credit.
6. Crystal Bridges, like Sam Walton, is rolling back prices. Admission to Crystal Bridges is absolutely free. Compare that to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that’s $25 just to sniff the rarified air. Take a family of five to the Louvre and you’re looking at the better part of a hundy.
7. 21C also has daily curated tours. Every afternoon, Museum Manager Dayton Castleman brings art to life in a riveting tour that’s as much history lesson as reminder to view life through different eyes. His contagious passion about Dis-semblance, the current exhibition of portraiture, reignited in me a burning appreciation for art and how it changes history.
8. At 21C, it’s perfectly acceptable to play with your art. Like its two sister properties, 21C Bentonville has a flock of four-foot plastic penguins. At last count, there were 32, all of which are bright neon green and free for guests to move around the property. At one point, I had a conga line of seven in my room.
8. It’s better than Mary Poppins. The green penguins are far more entertaining than any nanny. Even for big kids like me.
9. The green penguins (okay, so I really really like the green penguins) are simultaneously fun and thought-provoking. Cracking Art Group, an Italian consortium that makes the penguins, is also trying to make a point. By using the earth’s oldest natural material (petroleum) to make plastic animals, they’re raising awareness of the use (and misuse) of precious natural resources.
10. Exhibits (ergo the hotel décor) change twice a year. Hotels, no matter what kind of reputation and loyalty they inspire, must undergo renovations at least once a decade. It’s practically a necessity for repositioning against upstarts. At 21C, the hotel is automatically renovated every six months, practically a new hotel with a brand new exhibition.
11. Art is better viewed without the good sense of sobriety. Sure, you can score a drink at any hoity toity art patron function, but at The Hive, the cocktail bar at 21C, you can enjoy a Drugstore Cowboy (it has bulliet rye, courvoisier, domaine de canton and Benedictine) and Serkan Ozkaya’s “A Certain Burst of Wind,” 400 sheets of metal paper that emulate a scattered stack of 8-1/2 by 11-inch papers at the same time.
12. The Drugstore Cowboy is just the beginning of The Hive’s stellar hand-crafted cocktails. When you’re owned by Laura Lee Brown, heiress to the Brown-Forman fortune, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that your cocktails are going to stand out. If the name Brown-Forman doesn’t ring a bell, let me drop a few others: Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia, Southern Comfort, Woodford Reserve.
13. Contemporary art deserves to be seen. Brown and her husband Steve Wilson are mega-art collectors and, in fact, when they opened 21C Louisville in 2006, the first of the three in their growing line, they knew nothing about the hotel business. They just wanted their sizable $10 million plus contemporary art collection to come out from behind a velvet rope.
14. James Beard was here. Or rather one of his proteges. The Hive, a popular gathering spot, is helmed by Chef Matthew McClure, a James Beard semifinalist. His Brussels & Belly, a eponymous dish of smoked pork belly, brussel sprouts, hazelnuts and apple butter, is right up there with meth and crack when it comes to wanting more.
16. Where else can you see a tree that bears 40 kinds of fruit? In the winter, the Tree of 40 Fruit, one of several permanent “sculptures” at 21C, looks like any tree. In the spring, however, it blooms into an incredible harvest of heirloom and antique plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines and other pit fruits.University of Syracuse art professor Sam Van Aken grafts and sculpts what he calls a transubstantiation, a tree that defies how you see nature.
17. While you can play with the art, you can’t play with the basketball hoops. Orange Tree, a large metal sculpture sprouting 19 basketball hoops, is one of the first pieces visitors see. Maintenance finally had to erect stanchions to deter visitors from trying to shoot the basketballs that surround the piece created by Cuban artist Alexandre Archie
18. You can mosey over to the town square. There’s an old-fashioned soda fountain, a farmer’s market in the summer, an ice skating rink in the winter, crickets crooning at night and when you spot facial hair it’s on a farmer in overalls—not a hipster.
19. Bentonville is a whole different variety of hayseed. Sure, you get the Mayberry RFD vibe, but here–like art itself—things are turned completely on their heads. People are genuinely excited, revved up about art’s possibilities. Think Barney Fife channeling Alfred Stieglitz.
20. The building itself is aesthetically intriguing with high ceilings, cool tones and lots of natural light.
21. If you build it, they will come. Above all else, 21C Bentonville is blatantly fun, but like all the hotels in the 21C line, it has an ulterior motive. To stimulate economic growth. As Sam Walton used to say, “ Capital isn’t scarce. Vision is.”
Vision definitely isn’t scarce at 21C Bentonville.