Guests are encouraged to move the iconic penguins around the public spaces of the 21c Museum Hotel. The birds are part of the permanent collection.

If culture drives commerce, the 21c Museum Hotel is giving downtown Cincinnati's arts economy a big boost.

Not to mention upping the ante on the region's hospitality mix.

The Walnut Street gem is the latest addition to the city's downtown renaissance.

A complete renovation of the 100-year-old Neo-Classical Revival Metropole Hotel opens more than 8,000 square feet of art-filled space to the public. Six galleries showcase changing exhibits while hallways, floors, walls, stairways and even the elevators house impactful and interactive site-specific works of art.

Bringing Vibrancy

Chief curator Alice Gray Stites says the museum looks forward to "bringing more vibrancy" to the city's arts scene. Local leaders say the 156-room venue is the perfect complement to Cincinnati's arts, entertainment and event offerings.

"There is no doubt that arts and culture are part of our DNA," says Dan Lincoln, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"It truly is part of our economic life blood and it's how we enjoy our quality of life here. It is how visitors see us and it makes us unique in terms of the quality and quantity of arts organizations big and small."

Cultural Community

Cincinnati is a city on the move, Stites says. "It's a big city. A progressive city with lots of interesting things happening."

That makes the Queen City a good fit for the 21c model that strives to bring people into its buildings to respond to and reflect upon the art.

The art spaces at 21c hotels are open 24/7 to drive home management's desire to become a "community center for culture."

Look for everything from poetry readings to film screenings and lectures to be promoted at the hotel, often in partnership with other arts groups and nonprofit organizations.

"We believe so strongly that the arts do drive the health of the economy," says Stites. "We hope to demonstrate that there is broader support for all arts organizations in the city. There is the chance for greater understanding between public art and the private sector."

Cincinnati's 21c Museum Hotel is the second and larger property in the 21c portfolio. The first location is in Louisville, while plans include buildings in Bentonville, Ark.; Lexington, Ky.; and Durham, N.C.

Contemporary art collectors and preservationists Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson created the concept of marrying a boutique hotel with a contemporary art museum in downtown Louisville in 2007.

That property features galleries, 90 hotel rooms and a restaurant in five converted 19th century tobacco and bourbon warehouses. It quickly earned multiple honors as one of the world's top hotels.

And it helped transform downtown Louisville, which saw more businesses, restaurants and shops pop up.

In Cincinnati, 21c is already a destination to help market downtown. And it likely will be a catalyst for more development on Sixth Street's restaurant row and other pockets near Fountain Square and the Backstage District, says David Ginsburg, CEO of Downtown Cincinnati, Inc.

The block of Walnut between Sixth and Seventh streets has totally changed since DCI formed in 1994, says Ginsburg.

"If there ever was a picture postcard for revitalization and change, it is that block of Walnut and the final missing piece was the 21c building," he says.

Works of Art

Enter 21c Cincinnati and you experience a unique combination of old and new, historic and contemporary.

Architect Deborah Berke preserved the Metropole's tiles and moldings in ways that add character and respond to the contemporary art.

Eight site-specific works are on long-term display. They are interactive new media projects that change as they animate the space, says Stites.

"We hope they will stimulate an awareness of yourself, the people around you and the space," she says.

The experience starts outside the building, where a large brass chandelier created by Austrian artist Werner Reiterer incorporates the sounds of breath with lights that flicker on and off.

Inside the main entrance, a sculpture installation by Grimanesa Amoros illuminates a small hallway that connects the main lobby with a gallery. Inspired by islands off the coast of her native Peru, this work features acrylic bubbles with drawings that evoke reefs. LED lights shine through them.

The main elevator lobby showcases a video and lenticular photo compilation titled "Refraction" from George Legrady. Stites describes the artist as working at the intersection of photography, film and technical software.

Another hallway reveals a glowing green floor. "Healing Tiles" features yellow biomorphic shapes on the floor. When walked on, the shapes separate and come together again.

Artist Brian Knep is a resident at Harvard Medical School and wrote an algorithm for the art's software that allows it to interact with each movement.

"The Healing Tiles' will contain a memory for everyone that visits the space and we hope that gets people to return," Stites says.

The enormous "Lightmail" installation from Astrid Krogh should also inspire multiple visits. The LED tapestry was created by weaving fiber optic strands on a loom and hangs seven stories.

Do-Ho Suh's floor module table encases thousands of miniature human forms that appear to be holding up the panel above them.

Brooklyn-based Anne Peabody transformed the elevator cabs into time capsules, using panels of mirrored glass, drawings and images from newspapers and magazines. One cab tells the story of the 21c building, the other looks to the future.

"It's a moment of reflection for our own experiences," says Stites.

As one ascends the stairs to 21c's rooftop spa, Ryan Wolfe's "Field of Grass" creates a sense of calm.

The blades of grass mounted on the wall move as people approach and create the feel and sound of wind.

Experience and Discover

Every floor of the hotel includes spaces for art, including the Metropole restaurant.

The exhibition "Off-Shoot: Serial Explorations" includes the work of Cincinnati artist Jay Bolotin, who combines biblical, mythological and historical references to tell stories. Floors 3-10 feature the work of other Cincinnati artists.

"We think there is an amazing community of young artists working here and we strive to include their works," says Stites.

General manager Gerry Link says he appreciates the art more as he sees others find something new within it.

"Watching people interact with the art is about experience and discovery."

Link wants people to experience the building, too. He notes its charm and character and "interesting hallways and passageways that connect all the space."

Looking Ahead

In addition to the art, 21c Museum Hotels have a national reputation for hospitality and food service, says Lincoln of the Visitors Bureau.

"It's a destination in itself. People will come here for that hotel."

21c's arrival comes as downtown's top hotels are starting major renovations in the hope of attracting growth in room nights, says Kevin Kline, general manager of the Horseshoe Cincinnati Casino.

The Hyatt is getting a $20 million upgrade; the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza will spend $10 million on improvements. "The city has an opportunity to continue to add to and improve the room base needed to support and enhance the competitive positioning and destination appeal of Cincinnati," Kline says.

The renaissance continues.