In his booth at the St. James Court Art Show in Louisville, Peter Robinson Smith shines a flashlight through a wire mesh torso. The beam casts a striking shadow on the tent wall, each muscle perfectly shaded as if sketched in charcoal. Peter used to have a website but gave it up. “People would see photos online and e-mail me with questions, but they never ordered one. They got it here,” he says, touching his head, then his heart, “but not here.”
Similarly, thanks to Louisville’s sports icons, you might have an image of this Ohio River town in your head—but knowing is different from experiencing. Baseball fans grip genuine Derek Jeter bats at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The turmoil of the 1960s erupts at the Muhammad Ali Center, which honors the Louisville native. At Churchill Downs, tour groups stand trackside as thoroughbreds train at dawn. No doubt about it, Louisville (or “LOO-vul,” as locals say) knows how to work its legends to stirring effect.
But another part of Louisville’s charm is discovering that jocks alone don’t own this city’s soul. The St. James Court Art Show draws more than 700 artists to Old Louisville, the country’s largest Victorian district. Over three days, 300,000 people circulate through the leafy neighborhood, an astounding number in a city just twice that size. Affordability adds to the appeal; you’ll find plenty of art under $50.
Accessibility also inspires the 21c Museum Hotel, a boutique property with an art museum in its public spaces. Free and open 24 hours, the 21c embraces walk-in visitors. On a typical Saturday night, the lobby fills with hotel guests, a wedding party and wandering bar patrons toting bourbon glasses. Everyone talks about the art around them. This is the new Louisville, and it’s as much a part of the city’s identity as a frosty mint julep or the thundering staccato of hooves on sand.
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