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Offbeat at Bentonville's 21c Hotel

New art-obsessed hotel opens with bike tricks and parkour, naturally.

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Perhaps best known as the world headquarters of Walmart, Bentonville, in a delicious slice of incongruity, is fast becoming a center of art and design, thanks primarily to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art but also to 21c Museum Hotel, which opened in February. It's the third in a mini-chain of art-obsessed hotels, with others in Louisville and Cincinnati (and plans for more in Durham, N.C., and Lexington, Ky.).

Located on the northeast corner of the Bentonville town square, a short walk from Crystal Bridges' south entrance, 21c is a swell 104-room boutique hotel, contemporary art museum and cultural civic center all in one. Among its features are 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that's freely open to the public 24/7; The Hive restaurant (already creating a buzz), loaner bicycles that guests can use to access the area's 20-plus miles of cycling paths and a flock of giant plastic green penguins (explanation to follow). The hotel seamlessly marries thoughtful design, culinary creativity and contemporary art by emerging and internationally acclaimed artists (hence the name, paying homage to the 21st century). The lively grand opening, held April 19-21, drew an eclectic mix of artists and art critics from all over the country.

Before recounting the weekend's festivities, however, a brief history: 21c, which launched in downtown Louisville in 2006, was born of a desire to integrate contemporary art into everyday life. Troubled by development encroaching upon Kentucky's farmlands, philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson sought to reverse the trend toward suburban sprawl by contributing to revitalization efforts in their hometown. Pairing this desire with a second of their passions, contemporary art, the couple embarked on a journey to create an oasis where art challenges and amuses, stimulates conversation and provokes new ideas. (The collection in Bentonville achieves all of this.) The pair partnered with world-renowned architect Deborah Berke to realize their vision on the three existing properties.

21c Museum Hotels claims to redefine the art of modern Southern hospitality — which would explain why Bentonville guests are greeted by a mutant wombat in the lobby, offspring in various stages of gestation protruding from its grotesque back. (The wombat is actually part of the current exhibition, a work by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini crafted from silicon, hair and other materials). The space itself is airy and light-filled, welcoming and beguiling. A serpentine vintage Italian couch winds its way through the lobby, behind which hang the arresting photographs of South African artist Pieter Hugo. (They all linger in the mind, but there's one particularly stirring image of a child atop a chained hyena that still haunts me.) A striking photograph of a bison (as large as an actual bison) hangs behind the front desk; a sparkling pile of crystal encrusted antlers twinkle in the hallway; an interactive sculpture of whirring fans sits outside the elevators. It's a full-immersion experience into the world of 21st century art, where no place is out-of-bounds — from bathrooms to the boardroom and gym. Two inaugural exhibitions at the hotel will run through July: One, titled "Dead Ringer," features work from artist Slater Bradley and noted cinematographer Ed Lachman; the other, "Hybridity: The New Frontier," highlights more than 85 pieces from the 21c collection, including the aforementioned wombat-esque creature and a taxidermied turkey wearing a wig. The hotel has several permanent pieces, but rotates exhibitions.

Even before setting foot in the museum, however, you feel transported to some distant and exotic cosmopolis. The experience begins outside when you spy Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea's Orange Tree in the courtyard, a large-scale sculpture of a metal tree sprouting basketball hoops and surrounded by basketballs. (They've since had to erect stanchions around the piece to deter visitors from trying to shoot hoops.) You're also drawn to the concrete bench by the entryway that looks like stacked suitcases and offers a surprisingly comfortable spot from which to watch the comings and goings (of which there were many this weekend). And as for those giant green penguins, one keeps watch atop the hotel while others roam freely within it, popping up in unexpected places, like in the elevator or by your table in The Hive, during the course of the day — it's both playful and disorienting in a pleasant sort of way. Each location has them in varying colors, green in Bentonville, red in Louisville, yellow in Cincinnati.

The weekend festivities began with an intimate dinner at The Hive with 21c founders Brown and Wilson and a handful of artists and press. I would venture to say that the restaurant, under the leadership of Executive Chef Matthew McClure, serves up some of the finest fare in Arkansas. One of the many highlights of the weekend included seeing non-Southerners (of which there were plenty) being introduced to pimento cheese, here ingeniously served with bacon jam and toasted white bread.

Saturday consisted of a tour of 21c's current exhibition with the brilliant Chief Curator and Director of Art Programming Alice Gray Stites, a tour of Crystal Bridges and a screening of the short film "Shadow" by Bradley and Lachman followed by a discussion/Q&A. The day culminated in a "Pajama Party" that overtook the first floor. Attire included all forms of sleepwear, from pilled sweatpants and T-shirts to feathery scuffs and silken robes. I spent part of the evening lounging in The Hive (in my nightgown) as New York-based artist Slater Bradley offered a primer on astrology — it informs his work — over a plate of suckling pig and soybean salad.

Not to be outdone, hotel owner Steve Wilson sported chic black PJs with the top buttoned down to reveal a fake six pack. Several other surprises lay in store throughout the evening; at one point the sliding doors of the gallery were opened by two stilt walkers to reveal Kenny Belaey, world champion Belgian mountain bike trials cyclist, who gave a performance that elicited shrieks and gasps (and some expletives) from the crowd. He was joined by pro parkour athlete Travis Graves, who demonstrated parkour by springing over the scaffolding like a cricket (like a totally rad, hot cricket with a shaved head). Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams acted as DJ, setting a cool vibe for the wild goings on. Though the party went until the wee hours, it perhaps reached its apex with a performance by world-renowned aerialist Tatyana Petruk. We entered the gallery space, which was strewn with pillows, a pulsating light show flashing in sync with the music, and there saw a body cocooned in silks suspended from the ceiling. Petruk eventually burst forth and wowed the audience with staggering feats of agility and strength — like falling headlong toward the floor but being stopped short by the fabric wrapped round her ankles.

Throughout the weekend, performance artist turned acclaimed designer Karelle Levy of KRELwear created custom knits at the KREL2go Pop Up Shop — crafting ready-to-wear pieces in under an hour. Sunday concluded with an artists' roundtable titled "Myth, Magic, and Landscape," with five artists whose work is currently being exhibited at the hotel. Each created a site-specific installation for the property, employing a wide range of media, from organic to digital.

21c is a boon to this growing city (and that's not just the pimento cheese talking), providing a crucial link between historic downtown Bentonville and Crystal Bridges. Where else can you walk down the block to enjoy an old-fashioned float at a soda shop (and purchase some Walmart memorabilia) and then head up the street to an uber-cool gallery/hotel to see a mounted rhino head constructed entirely of matches? Sure, deer heads are ubiquitous in these parts, but a two-headed ram made from used tires? You'll have to go to 21c to see that.

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