Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Feature: 21c's Director, William Morrow.

Reposting this great article by Elizabeth Kramer of Louisville's Courier-Journal about William Morrow, Director of 21c's Musuem. William is seen below, photographed inside the "Woman on the Run" motel room.

November 22, 2010
Photo by Matt Stone, The Courier Journal
21c art wrangler extraordinaire: Hotel job keeps William Morrow hopping

By Elizabeth Kramer
21c Museum Hotel has defied definition since it opened in 2006. It's a hotel. It's a gallery. It's a restaurant. It's open 24 hours a day. And it has received accolades for its art and its hospitality.

That makes director William Morrow more than a busy man. 

Morrow, 32, along with owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, manages all the art and arts-related activities at 21c, and that covers a lot of ground.

A few weeks ago, Morrow was on the hotel's rooftop setting up equipment for a film screening by the Louisville Film Society. Back inside, he was managing a change of exhibitions in the galleries. Morrow and Wilson curated the outgoing show, an exhibit of photographs and sculptures by Simen Johan called “Until the Kingdom Comes,” selecting works from the 21c collection and securing other pieces through loans from galleries and other private collections.

As that came down, Morrow was working with artist Tracey Snelling to coordinate the installation of her sprawling piece, called “Woman on the Run.” This exhibit, with its film noir influence and an architectural landscape of buildings incorporated with photography and other media, essentially meant setting up a motel in the hotel's lobby.

“One day I'm up on a ladder working on a projector, but also thinking about interpreting art at 21c,” Morrow said.

Morrow is busy, but he likes it that way. He enjoys the diversity of his job even more. And keeping up with all of those tasks is exactly what Wilson expects from his director.

“It's a variety of things he helps us do, including documenting the collection and keeping up with the values and the trends,” Wilson said. “And he keeps up with upcoming shows and the museum shows around the country and the world.”

Morrow, a Louisville native, met Wilson and Brown nearly 10 years ago, after he graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland with a master's degree in art history and English literature. 

Morrow went to work for Wilson and Brown at their home in Goshen. Their art collection was growing fast, and keeping track of the contemporary work the couple had assembled inspired him. He went back to Europe and enrolled in the graduate program in museum studies at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. 

Through that program, he got to work at museums and handle pieces by Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. While working with fellow students to curate an exhibit of heroes and villains, he began to explore the collection of Latin American art at Essex University.

“And I discovered, literally, in this broom closet, this 6-foot-by-6-foot painting by Raúl Martínez, one of the most famous pop artists from Cuba,” Morrow said.

If he wasn't hooked on museums already, that sealed the deal.

Morrow wrote his dissertation on the role of the benefactor in American art. Morrow researched the institutions set up by philanthropists during the Gilded Age of the late 1880s through the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. He documented how corporations become involved in supporting art in the latter part of the 20th century — and how that support waned as the year 2000 approached.

That provided Morrow with a historical perspective on the evolving idea of supporting visual art when he moved home to Louisville in fall 2005. At that time, “21c was on the front burner and in full swing.”

He hooked up with Wilson and Brown right away, as they were preparing for their spring 2006 debut as hoteliers-cum-gallerists.

Morrow sees Wilson and Brown's venture — which now includes developing other 21c Museum Hotels in Cincinnati, Bentonville, Ark., and possibly Austin, Texas — as a new and much-needed way of making visual art accessible to the public.

“Most of my colleagues (at traditional museums) are constantly doing capital campaigns to sustain themselves,” he said. “Most traditional museums seem so static because they are so separated from real-life scenarios. And I do think there's a place for that, because there is definitely a need for places of contemplation, and that's what some of the more traditional museums are better at.”

The primary challenge at 21c, he said, is not financial but the result of the Main Street building's architectural limitations. The experience here has proved instructive, he said, as the 21c design team develops the new properties.

Reaching out
Morrow has expanded his role by reaching out to other arts groups in the community, such as the film society. 

That partnership led to a film series that has brought movies to 21c for 36 consecutive months.

There is the 21c Monthly Poetry Series with Sarabande Books, the acclaimed Louisville-based literary press, and a regular Sunday event called Cabaret Life Drawing. It provides interesting models for anyone who wants to come and practice drawing. There's also Yoga with Art, where yoga students can practice among 21c's artworks.

Molly Swyers, who works with Morrow on publicity and marketing efforts, credits him with making 21c more of a cultural center.

“When we first opened 21c, I don't think anyone involved saw the potential for it to become a cultural center for the community,” she said. “William really took it upon himself to develop relationships and collaborate with many other organizations in this community to create opportunities for people to have these cultural experiences.”

Expansion beckons
Looking back on the last five years, Morrow called himself lucky to have the opportunity to have such a novel job in his hometown.

“I'm not coming from a restaurant or a hotel background, so the learning curve there has been tremendous,” he said. “But being able to be in on the 21c development from the design phase has been fascinating — to see how a restaurant gets started, and how the hotel came to fruition, and being a part of Steve and Laura Lee's collection before 21c.” 

Wilson feels fortunate, too. 

“We're lucky to have someone like him who happens to be from Kentucky and is well educated in the field that we are so involved with,” Wilson said. “The scope of our collection has grown, and when we first began collecting, we didn't even know we were going to be doing 21c. And as our collection has increased, William's been able to keep up with the pace.”

With what is planned for Louisville's 21c and the opening of others across the country, Wilson said, he sees Morrow keeping very busy over the next few years.

Reporter Elizabeth Kramer can be reached at (502) 582-4682.