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Artbeat: Hotel Art Gets Hip

Alan Shortall

Photo: Alan Shortall

Say the words hotel art and you're sure to turn a few stomachs. Tacky canvases in the lobby and prints color-coordinated with the drapes are de rigueur. "Even at the Four Seasons, you find a certain kind of art," admits New York art consultant B. J. Topol. "You know, sporting scenes and landscapes in gilded frames."

Hotels may still be judged by the thread count of their sheets and the promptness of their room service, but the dawn of the boutique hotel in the eighties upped the ante. Sleek club chairs by Christian Liaigre and funky Philippe Starck stools became the mark of distinction. But now that the W hotel chain has made the boutique look mainstream, luring the upscale set takes more than cool furnishings. The latest in hotel chic?Guest rooms and lobbies that could easily double as art galleries.

"Art is absolutely a draw," says Topol, who's helping the developers of a half-dozen new Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons build collections for their properties. "Museum attendance is skyrocketing, and artists are hot." Possibly, they've never been hotter.

ONE OF THE FIRST BIG HOTELS TO MAKE ART AN AMENITY was Barcelona's Hotel Arts, a Ritz-Carlton—managed high-rise that opened in 1994. In addition to a giant Frank Gehry copper fish sculpture at the entrance, the Hotel Arts houses an impressive collection: more than 1,000 pieces of contemporary Spanish paintings, lithographs, sculptures, ceramics, and furniture—many commissioned specifically for the property—displayed throughout the hotel's 33 floors. Eventually, the owners were compelled to offer guided tours for non-guests.

Dirk Gadeke opened his first Art'otel in Berlin, in 1997. Gadeke's idea was to fill his tiny hotel off the Kurfürstendamm with contemporary art—and the kind of guests who would appreciate it. Jonathan Read, the chairman of the Park Plaza hotel corporation and a major collector of contemporary art, recognized what he called "the nub of a great concept" and bought the Art'otel, which by then had outposts in Potsdam and Dresden. Read subsequently made plans to open another in Berlin's bohemian Mitte district. Rather than simply decorate his hotels with a mishmash of work, Read commissioned a single artist to create all the pieces for each property. "In a Philippe Starck hotel, his design is the art," explains Read. "In our hotels, design is just the casement for the art, which is the real focus."

Read thinks his strategy makes perfect business sense. "When I travel, I go to every museum and gallery in town," he says. "And a lot of people do the same, making art the cornerstone of their vacation. According to our research, the number of people doing this kind of travel has tripled over the last twenty years. It's a pretty targeted market. That's what I tell my board of directors."

Read is planning Art'otels in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami and considering sites in Paris, London, Rome, Sydney, and Marrakesh. He's negotiating with such contemporary giants as Francesco Clemente, Jim Dine, Edward Ruscha, and James Rosenquist. His most recent—and most ambitious—venture recently opened in Budapest: a 165-room property packed with more than 600 pieces by the American painter Donald Sultan. "Sultan made sense in Budapest," says Read, "he knows the city well, and he does still lifes, common in a lot of Hungarian art." His paintings, drawings, and even sculpture—a first for Sultan—fill every corner of the hotel, from the lobbies and restaurant to the meeting rooms, hallways, and guest rooms. "It's like a little museum or a small foundation of my work," says Sultan, who also cast his artistic eye on the hotel's interiors. "They asked me, 'What would you like for a bathroom?' and I said, 'Tile all the walls and keep the counter simple and the colors simple.' And they did."

Matchboxes, menus, stationery, playing cards, and china patterns all reproduce motifs from Sultan's paintings and sketches. Guests at the hotel can flip through an in-room catalogue to find out more about the artist's contributions, but only the blackbirds that adorn almost every room are for sale). The 200 to 300 tourists a day who come to see the Sultans (Read can thank local guidebooks for that) are on their own—unless they purchase the catalogue to Sultan's hotel-wide opus in the gift shop. There is some talk of merchandising items that feature his artwork, possibly the dishes and playing cards. Sultan seems slightly surprised. "I'm not against it," he says. "I just hadn't thought about it."

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