Forget hokey landscapes and bronze lobby sculpture.Hotels — big and small — are going for the real thing

Alan Shortall
| Credit: 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."

LIKE READ, IRA DRUKIER, AN OWNER OF THE NEWLY opened Chambers hotel in midtown Manhattan, is a serious collector who's translating his passion for art into a business strategy. Located near MOMA and the galleries of West 57th Street, the Chambers' 77 guest rooms mimic artists' lofts: high ceilings and exposed concrete floors in the bathrooms, blackened-steel-and-leather furniture, bedside tables upholstered in canvas. And of course the rooms are crammed with art: more than 500 original works by emerging talents. "We started thinking about pieces for the guest rooms, and then we got carried away," recalls Drukier, who is also a co-owner of the chic Mercer in SoHo. "We began to develop site-specific installations in the hallways and asked David [Rockwell, the hotel's architect] to design the lobby so that art could be moved around and changed."

Drukier tapped consultants Leslie McBride and Adele Abide of New York's Museum Editions Art Advisors to curate what was becoming a substantial collection. "This was a major undertaking," Abide says. "Not too many hotels have all original work in every room." Abide and McBride pored over slides from recent art school grads and visited studios in Chelsea to dig up new talent. They gave each of 14 artists their own elevator landings to do with what they wished. John Newsom created vibrant paintings of fruits and flowers on one floor; on another, Bob and Roberta Smith painted a series of wall texts that make such fashionista-style pronouncements as up is the new down; irascible cult-classic director John Waters contributed photos from the set of his 1998 movie, Pecker. Unfortunately, the Chambers's hallways tend toward the narrow, so these installations don't always look their best. In some cases you wonder if extra space would have helped.

As in Budapest's Art'otel, catalogues in each guest room provide background on the artists and their work. Nothing in the Chambers is for sale, however. "If anyone likes the work, the front desk will refer them to the artists' dealers," Drukier says. "I don't want to be in the art business." And he really doesn't want his hotel overwhelmed with the tour groups that descend on the Budapest Art'otel either. "The lobby might become something of a destination," he concedes, "but we are, after all, a hotel."

Indeed. Though Drukier sees his hotel's focus on emerging artists as a boon to business, many guests who are able to pay $500 for a room don't necessarily want their art chosen for them. What happens if they take an active dislike to the canvases hanging on their wall?Is housekeeping allowed to come take them down?

André Balazs has skirted that problem altogether by embracing one of contemporary art's newest media. The stylish young things at his trendy Standard on L.A.'s Sunset Strip won't find original art in their rooms, but they can head down to the retro-chic lobby to see nonstop video installations by buzz-heavy artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Marco Brambilla. Every six months, curator Yvonne Force rotates the offerings of "The Standard Projection: 24/7." "I tailor the work to the people who stay at the Standard," says Force, referring to the hotel's youthful and chic devotees. Balazs is developing a system whereby guests can watch the lobby videos from the comfort of their rooms, on the in-house "Standard Channel."

LUXURY CHAINS—BESIDES THE RITZ-CARLTON AND THE FOUR SEASONS— are getting in on the act, too. The new 67-story Park Hyatt on Chicago's tony North Michigan Avenue features pieces by three big-name artists: Gerhard Richter, Isamu Noguchi, and Dale Chihuly. The centerpiece of the lobby is Richter's 1968 Piazza del Duomo Milan, a canvas purchased by the Hyatt chain from Sotheby's in 1998 for a reported $3.6 million. Staci Boris, an associate curator for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, selected the art for the public spaces; David Travis, the Chicago Art Institute's curator of photography, chose the work of local photographers for the guest rooms. There's even a designated gallery on the seventh floor.

In New York, developer Forest City Ratner Companies and the Hilton Corporation sought guidance from the Public Art Fund in putting together a $4 million art program for the Hilton's newest properties, the Embassy Suites in Battery Park City and the Hilton Times Square. They liked "the idea of bringing the cultural life of New York into their hotels," says the Public Art Fund's Laura Raicovich.

Though the budget Embassy Suites might not be an obvious destination for art lovers, it should be. In the soaring atrium is Sol LeWitt's specially commissioned 11-story swirl of colors titled Loopy Doopy (Blue and Purple). The lobby has smaller but equally bright murals by Pat Steir. Farther uptown, in Disneyfied Times Square, whimsical sculptures by Tom Otterness angle from the Hilton's marquee. Inside, visitors will find 14 large-scale photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose images include wax-museum mannequins (Madame Tussaud's is practically next door), and old Times Square theaters shot by Andrew Moore.

In the guest rooms in both hotels hang specially commissioned print editions by painters Mary Heilmann, Elizabeth Peyton, and Sara Sosnowy. "We made enough for both hotels," Raicovich says. Each property also claims a who's who of the contemporary art world, with prints, etchings, and photos by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Julian Schnabel, Louise Bourgeois, and Jeff Koons. "It's amazing that developers are committed to doing this kind of thing," marvels Raicovich of the push to give art top billing. "It's not cheap to commission someone like Sol LeWitt."

SERIOUS ART MADE ITS DEBUT IN GLITTERY LAS VEGAS with the opening of the Bellagio Collection, Steve Wynn's museum-in-a-casino. (Wynn's art treasures were recently sold, but the space is now open to temporary exhibitions such as the current one showcasing Steve Martin's considerable collection). Now the Venetian is upping the ante—for Vegas and the entire hotel industry—with its lofty plans for outposts of the Guggenheim and St. Petersburg's venerable Hermitage Museum. Venetian President Rob Goldstein says the resort didn't have the budget to build a significant art collection from scratch. "We thought a museum affiliation would be better. So we shopped around and settled on [Guggenheim director] Tom Krens, who's proven he's willing to be a renegade," he says. Krens has also proven he's not afraid to bring commerce to the museum.

Goldstein and Krens are building two freestanding structures on the Venetian property, both designed by Rem Koolhaas. (Which begs the question: How much less does a splashy new building cost than a permanent art collection?) The Guggenheim Las Vegas will be a vast, 64,000-square-foot exhibition space—not a proper museum, since there's no permanent collection—with soaring 70-foot ceilings. The famously ambitious Krens hopes it will be one of the most flexible and technologically advanced art spaces in the country. The second building, housing exhibitions by the joint-venture Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum, will be a smaller affair, at just 8,000 square feet. The inaugural show in the bigger space is another viewing of the celebrated "Art of the Motorcycle," installed by Frank Gehry.

The Guggenheim marketing machine, which has already proven its success in drawing crowds and revenue, may have hit on the winning formula for making art part of the hotel experience: Build a dedicated space and fill it with work assembled by a major institution. But there are problems there, too. What happens, for instance, when globe-trotting art fans check into the Venetian and discover they've already seen the show?(When I visited Bilbao, the same Rauschenberg retrospective I'd seen in New York was there, as was Richard Serra's undeniably powerful Torqued Ellipses, which I was experiencing for the third time in as many cities.) The Guggenheim project really serves to underscore the difficulties in taking art from one marketplace and putting it in another. Art is expensive to buy, install, and insure; there's no guarantee of a long shelf life. Hotel owners are betting that culture mavens will be more likely to spend the night where there's real art on the walls. But if they're wrong, they could end up with very expensive equivalents of the vibrating bed.


Hotel Arts 19—21 Carrer de la Marina, Barcelona; 800/241-3333 or 34-93/221-1000, fax 34-93/221-1070; doubles from $280.

Art'otel Budapest 16—19 Bem Rakpart, Budapest; 36-1/487-9487, fax 36-1/487-9488; doubles from $180.

Chambers 15 W. 56th St., New York; 212/974-5656, fax 212/204-7777; doubles from $425.

The Standard 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/650-9090, fax 323/650-2820; doubles from $135.

Park Hyatt 800 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; 800/233-1234 or 312/335-1234, fax 312/239-4000; doubles from $410.

Embassy Suites 102 North End Ave., New York; 800/362-2779 or 212/945-0100, fax 212/945-3012; doubles from $209.

Hilton Times Square 234 W. 42nd St., New York: 212/840-8222, fax 212/840-5516; doubles from $209.

The Venetian 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; 877/857-1861 or 702/414-1000, fax 702/414-1100; doubles from $299.