Art doesn’t belong behind a red velvet rope and to prove it, Louisville philanthropists Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, opened a 91-room boutique hotel and restaurant around their $10 million contemporary art collection.

Called 21c Museum Hotel, this provocative hotel, regularly voted as one of the best in the country, features not only 9000 square feet of exhibition space, but has original contemporary art in all the rooms, the lobby and even the bathrooms.

Red plastic penguins, the hotel’s mascot, peer down from the roof. An interactive video by Camille Utterbach rains letters onto a mirrored screen next to the elevator, forming poems on guest’s outstretched arms. A 1995 Lincoln Town Car, covered with shiny red glass by artist Monica Mahoney, serves as the hotel limo. It’s called the 21c Pip Mobile.

The lobby floor has a video installation by Abbas Kiarostami of a couple sleeping in bed, the women’s restroom has Sean Bidic’s screens of individual blinking eyes and, in addition to all the regular hotel staff, there’s a full-time curator.

Designed by famed architect Deborah Berke from a string of 19th-century tobacco and bourbon warehouses, this unusual hotel hosts film openings, dance and theater performances and even art classes. The 2500-piece permanent collection, including pieces by Bill Viola, Andres Serrano, Chuck Close, Alfredo Jaar and sculptors Yinka Shonibare and Judy Fox, is open to the public 24/7.

“I love doing this because it’s so unlike a traditional museum,” says Wilson, a former PR man for three Kentucky governors. “It’s so accessible, and that’s what to me contemporary art should be all about.”

On exhibit now are 90 paintings, photographs, sculpture, mixed media and video installations by Cuban artists.

Proof on Main, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, offers inventive dishes by Chef Michael Paley and more than 50 Kentucky bourbons. Laura Lee, not surprisingly, is heir to Forman-Brown, one of the largest liquor and wine companies in the world including Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Finlandia Vodka.

The rooms, many with exposed brick walls, are spacious with high ceilings, custom furniture, silver mint julep cups and an iPod docking station with a audio tour of guess what? The hotel’s art collection.

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