The 21c Museum Collection: A Global Gathering


21c was founded in 2006 by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, contemporary art collectors and preservationists who are committed to broadening public access to thought-provoking contemporary art through acquisitions, exhibitions, and innovative cultural programming. Now a multi-venue museum, 21c also organizes exhibitions and events in Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Louisville, Oklahoma City, and soon, Nashville. As 21c has expanded, the permanent collection has grown, and now includes artworks from all over the world, in media ranging from found objects to digital generations, alongside painting, photography, sculpture, video, and performance. As seen in this selection of highlights from the collection, prevalent themes include portraiture and identity, politics and power, and the evolution and degradation of the environment. Artists both internationally known and emerging are represented in the 21c collection: Chuck Close, Anthony Goicolea, Dinh Q. Lê, and Zanele Muholi have been collected and exhibited by museums across the globe, while Ken Gonsales-Day, Gabriel Lester, Melanie Bonajo, and others are just stepping onto the world’s art stage.

Throughout the exhibition, the topics of identity, power, and the environment are approached through direct references to noted works from art history, connecting history to the present and past events to current issues. From the allusion to Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa in Taylor Baldwin’s shipwrecked skeleton to Ori Gersht’s restaging of Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin’s 18th-century still life as a video painting to Marco Veronese’s appropriation of a Da Vinci painting and Marc Fromm’s transformation of a 15th-century portrait by Petrus Christus into a life-size sculpture, these artists quote from the canon of art history to examine the contemporary human condition. The broad spectrum of imagery on view suggests a cyclical, rather than linear, perspective on that most powerful of forces, the passage of time.

From images of daily life and the pervasive threat of violence on the Israel/Palestine border by Rina Castelnuovo and on the front lines of Afghanistan by Tim Hetherington, to explorations of potent intersections of consumerism, politics, and religion in works by Ye Hongxing and Carlos Aires, to haunting portraits that capture subjects both real and imagined by Christian Schoeler and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, these visionary artists create aesthetically and conceptually engaging works that reflect how we live and die, work, play, and dream in the 21st century; their revelations may inspire insights into how we might build and share a progressive future worldwide.

Nearly 100 exhibitions have been presented to the public by 21c, including Cuba Now!; Alter Ego: A Decade of Work by Anthony Goicolea; Hybridity: The New Frontier; Aftermath: Witnessing War, Countenancing Compassion; Seeing Now; Wild Card: The Art of Michael Combs; Dis-semblance: Projecting and Perceiving Identity; Albano Afonso: Self-Portrait as Light; Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art.

Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator