Adia Sykes
Hotel Museum Manager

A hotel’s museum links art to place and culture

By Amber Gibson

I’m staying at 21c Museum Hotel Chicago for the first time and the most intriguing amenity is the contemporary art gallery – open 24/7, 365 days a year to the public at no charge. 

The collection of 110 pieces, representing artists from 40 countries spans two floors and I’ve requested a private tour from Adia Sykes, the hotel’s museum manager. 

Adia has lived in Chicago for a decade, studying anthropology at the University of Chicago and receiving her master’s degree in Arts Administration and Policy from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“I wholeheartedly believe that art has an inextricable link to place and culture,” Adia says. “It can be another touchpoint for insight into a new place. Art in particular, be it historical or contemporary, is such a beautiful catalyst for conversation and expansive thinking. Reading a history book or travel guide is one way to immerse yourself in a new place or culture, but seeing the art of that place is something more—something profound.”

Adia’s office is in the basement of the hotel, but she comes above ground as frequently as possible to interact with guests and explore the artwork from fresh perspectives. She says she had grown weary of traditional art institutions and was intrigued by 21c’s new model for an arts institution. Despite the challenges of the past pandemic year, Adia has cultivated relationships with other arts organizations in the city and has begun incorporating local artists in 21c’s arts programming.

For example, Elevate is an exhibition program that installs local art into the hotel’s elevator bays from the second floor all the way to the seventeenth floor. Curator Conversations is a bi-monthly series that asks a local curator or arts organizer to choose an artist, maker, or creative to chat with. There’s also a free weekly tour on Thursdays at 6 pm, open to the public and hotel guests alike. 

“Anyone can wander in and join,” Adia says. “The tours are one of my favorite parts of this job. The unknown of who’s going to be there, any given individual’s thoughts about the exhibition’s themes, and what interest in art they might have are all really exciting variables to negotiate. Some of the most rewarding moments are answering questions or providing more information on an artist or specific piece and seeing lightbulbs go on.”

The current exhibition, which opened in Chicago and will remain here through March 2022, before going on tour at other 21c Museum Hotel locations, is called This We Believe. There are references to politics, currency and sports teams throughout – the things we prescribe meaning to as humans, that we celebrate, dedicate our lives to and are sometimes even willing to die for.

On my personalized tour (hotel guests can request private tours during their stay), we start in the lobby with “The State I Am In, In The Consciousness Of A Country’s Empty Mind,” a life-size sculpture by young French artist THE KID of a forlorn, beaten down, tattooed young man atop a bison, carrying a baby swaddled in an American flag in one arm and holding a football helmet in another. What is it that we pledge allegiance to? What kind of future are we creating as a country? Adia points out that this unnamed teen, whom you can’t help but feel for, is bearing the consequences of a selfish, misguided and divided nation. The traditional American dream, and our country’s beliefs in Manifest Destiny and American dominance no longer exist for him.

Another piece Adia points out to me that I might have otherwise missed, tucked away in a corner, is “Jackie on Skorpios” by TJ Wilcox. It’s a black and white paparazzi shot of Jackie Kennedy Onassis nude on a yacht on her honeymoon, over which he superimposes a dagger aimed at her heart. Adia tells me this is not only a commentary on our culture of celebrity worship and destruction but also of power, and the rumors that her new husband tipped the paparazzi off to their location so they could get the shot. The thought sent chills down my spine, that somebody you loved and trusted so much could betray you so deeply and humiliate you in front of the whole world. Each piece in this collection has the potential to spark deep reflection and poignant conversations.

If you’re in Chicago, I encourage you to stop by for a visit and ask if Adia is around, especially if there are any pieces that especially speak to you that you’d like to learn more about. Even if you aren’t a hotel guest, I guarantee that she’d love to meet you and hear about your favorite pieces.

About the journalist:
Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in travel, food, wine and wellness with bylines in Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, Robb Report, Travel + Leisure, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Artful Living, NBC, NPR, USA Today and many more. Dark chocolate, champagne and gelato are her biggest weaknesses.