The first time I attended a Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention, I was stage managing a production of Side by Side by Sondheim. It was 1983 and the convention was in Tampa. I have attended the conference most years since, as a student, a job seeker, a producer, director and casting director, a faculty recruiter, a workshop presenter, a panelist, and, lately, an editorial board member for Southern Theatre magazine.
2020 was at least my fourth time to attend an SETC in Louisville. Whether I’m in town for a work-related event or a stopover, it has always seemed like a good city that I’d like to have more time to explore. In the past, SETC and other trips have been based more around the Galt House, a sprawling convention hotel on the Ohio River, and my activities were typically confined to the Galt complex and that immediate area of Main Street, where I always seemed to have a great view looking west onto the Ohio River.
This year, the convention was held at the Kentucky International Convention Center, a few blocks deeper into the central business district and farther from the river. My hotel directly connected to the center. I missed the quirky style of the Galt House, but had a better opportunity to explore the scene a few blocks from Main Street during convention breaks.
Whenever I am in Louisville, I make sure to set a time to get together with my friend, Kimberly. Kimberly, a Louisville native, and I have a long-standing tradition of talking on the phone on Derby Day; she usually calls just before the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
On this visit, Kimberly was anxious to introduce me to the Rathskeller in the basement of the Seelbach Hotel and we were both disappointed that it is closed, open only for special events nowadays. With the Rathskeller unavailable, we were redirected to the Old Seelbach Bar for a nice meal and a sense of gracious old Louisville. F. Scott Fitzgerald makes a sideways reference to the Seelbach Hotel in The Great Gatsby as the “Muhlbach,” a Louisville hotel that hosted the Buchanan’s elaborate wedding party. The meal, service, and reserved sophistication of the place honor its storied history.
It is an SETC tradition for four friends and me to gather at a restaurant in the host city on the final night to celebrate the conclusion of another successful convention, and mostly to celebrate many years of continuing friendship. It’s a perfect way to unwind, catch up, and prepare for the travel day ahead. I am happy to take on the responsibility of choosing the location for the feast.
It didn’t take long for me to settle on this year’s venue. Proof on Main is the restaurant in Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel. Louisville was the first location of the 21C Hotel group, which will soon have close to a dozen museum hotels nationally. Each hotel encompasses a contemporary art museum and a restaurant and the art flows freely, intersecting with guest spaces, bar and restaurant spaces, public spaces, … even the restrooms. The 21C hotels collectively hold one of the world’s most significant collections of art of the 21st Century and each has rotating exhibits as well as permanent holdings. Since it’s part of a hotel, the museum is accessible 24-hours daily.
The Louisville location’s Main Street corner is presided over by a humongous gold statue, “David (inspired by Michelangelo),” by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, attracting much gawking amid the pristine Victorian cast iron facades which dominate the street. The serious collection of contemporary art is tempered by such whimsy and by a stretch limo sitting outside the restaurant, completely covered in blue-grey marbles. “Red Penguin,” by the Cracking Art Group of Italy, is 21C’s mascot, and those striking creatures are scattered throughout the facility.
On our visit, the west coast artist duo known as “Fallen Fruit” had filled the bar and each dining room of Proof on Main with an intriguing and bold installation featuring found objects and bespoke wallpaper inspired by the artists’ impressions of Louisville. Alice Gray Stiles, 21C’s Museum Director, writes that
Fallen Fruit’s immersion into the people and places that shape community reveals a universal, defining aspect of the human condition, hunger—to be fed, to be seen, to belong, to be loved. The persistence of these desires fosters the continuity of ritual: the practices of everyday life don’t really change—we eat, drink, we talk, we congregate and celebrate in ways that would be recognizable to our forbears at least a century ago, and these acts retain meaning and promise.
The current main exhibit in the museum is “Labor&Materials,” a multi-media exploration of the concepts and ramifications of global 21st Century industry. There are many messages and global concerns addressed in the expansive exhibition, but agenda does not overwhelm agency and there is much aesthetic beauty to relish.
My favorite piece in the museum, however, was a permanent installation in an outdoor sunken courtyard. “Cloud Rings” (2006), by environmental artist Ned Kahn, is a grouping of three cauldron-like vessels that constantly shoot rings of fog. The clouds are ever-changing based on the wind and humidity – visible from a large window inside the gallery as well as from street level. The continuous action is mesmerizing.
The inventive kitchen at Proof on Main, overseen by Executive Chef Jonathan Searle, is equal to its heady environment, serving locally-sourced and inventive dishes in a comfortably charged atmosphere with a superior wait staff. Our table ordered from a variety of dishes ranging from bison to trout. One of our group, Russell, observing what is this Saturday group’s standing tradition, treated each of us to Brandy Alexanders at the end of the meal. A final whimsical epilogue for the meal was when our server brought a plate of pink cotton candy along with the checks.
The next day, on the way out of town, Churchill Downs beckoned. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, as much as I love the tradition of the Kentucky Derby, I had never gone out to see Churchill Downs.
A short exit off I-65 South and I was there. I chose not to go inside the museum and take the tour this time, but I was determined – despite construction blockades and locked gates – to spot the iconic twin spires from the trackside. After much maneuvering, I finally got to a nice view of the spires and one step closer, perhaps, to eventually watching the Derby from the stands.